May 30, 2020

Workers’ Words Some bemoan Maine’s high taxes and loss of manufacturing jobs, but others see a silver lining

By virtue of their jobs, state business developers, policymakers and economic analysts like to tell Mainers what’s wrong – and what’s right – with the state’s economy.

But it’s Mainers who know firsthand what’s going on in the economy. They live and breathe the statements that politicians and pundits ponder and recite.

The loss of good-paying manufacturing jobs has been a fact of life in Maine for a couple of decades. It seemed to escalate recently, especially in the pulp and paper industry.

Tom Picard of Millinocket, James Ireland of Belfast and Linda Brown of Corinth saw their positions eliminated in the last 11/2 years. Ireland got a new job, but not in the paper industry, where he has most of his work experience. Picard now is earning $10 less per hour in a state job while Brown is awaiting her first unemployment check.

Another fact of Maine’s economy is that the state’s young people are leaving Maine to find not only a job, but one that will pay better wages than what they can earn in Maine. Patricia Whitney is a young mother and college junior who plans to leave Down East for Florida upon graduation to do just that. Eastern Maine Community College student Amanda Savoy of Bangor, however, has faith that the state’s economy will turn around and create a business management job for her by the time she’s out of school in two years.

Sandra Yapsuga of Bangor has been in the thick of competition for whatever office management or legal secretary job that has opened up in the last 11/2 years. The newly married legal secretary, who once worked at one of Boston’s largest law firms, routinely has to find ways to make herself stand out among 40 or more applicants for one job.

In one industry, medical and pharmaceutical services, the jobs are plentiful, and that’s where the state has experienced growth that has kept Maine’s unemployment rate below 5 percent. Dr. Duane E. Gray of Blue Hill knows that there is an “extreme” shortage of pharmacists and has trained Indians and Pakistanis who work at Rite Aids statewide.

In terms of education, the state wants Mainers to pursue schooling as a way to gain new skills and make themselves employable in the new economy. David Conroe of Dover-Foxcroft retrains laid-off manufacturing workers, but questions why the only jobs created so far in the new economy are service-based. He said good-paying jobs are needed in a cross-section of industries, not just services.

What hurts Maine’s efforts to attract new businesses are its high taxes. William Iliffe Sr. of Tenants Harbor agrees, and questions why the state isn’t doing more to lower taxes.

But what Maine promotes to new businesses as an asset – the “quality of life” factor – is what keeps up the confidence levels of retirees Bill Harford of Belfast and Larry Hall of Ashland. They believe the economy will turn around probably within two years, because that’s what has happened in the past. The nation’s economy picks up, and two years later, Maine follows suit. Both men have had other jobs to supplement their retirement income.

Although the 11 people interviewed for this story have experienced hardship, or they believe that Maine’s economy is in poor shape, most of them remain confident that the state’s business developers, policymakers or analysts will turn around the state’s economy and bring financial happiness to them.

They’re looking forward to reports that say all’s well.

Tom Picard, Millinocket

Former Great Northern Paper Inc. worker; now full time with Maine Department of Transportation

Great Northern Paper Inc. had been shut down for five months already when Tom Picard got a new job last May. It meant commuting from Millinocket to Brewer every day to work on the line at Trans-Tech, a manufacturer of industrial-size storage tanks for trucks.

When another job opened up about six months later in Medway to help plow crews during the winter and clean roadside rest areas during the summer, Picard applied for it and got it. Although the position is not in manufacturing, he’s saving money by not having to commute more than 120 miles daily.

The money isn’t that great, but he’s still able to live in the Katahdin Region, which he loves.

“I was making $19.09 an hour when I was working at Great Northern and now I’m only making $9.29 an hour.”

Picard isn’t that happy with the state’s economy, and he blame’s the North American Free Trade Agreement for causing a collapse of the state’s once strong manufacturing sector. More than 22,000 manufacturing jobs have disappeared in the last couple of years.

“I’m very disappointed,” Picard said. “Companies aren’t spending the money to upgrade their companies here. They’re taking their businesses overseas.”

Picard said he disagrees with businesses that say they won’t locate in Maine because the state isn’t on major transportation routes. And he especially dislikes anyone who says the Katahdin Region is too far away from metropolitan areas such as Boston or even Portland to be considered a viable place to locate a business.

He said one thing he’s learned working at Trans-Tech is that customers don’t care where the products they want are made as long as they are of good quality and are reasonably priced.

“Trans-Tech in Brewer was shipping to Florida,” Picard said. “Do you think those people buying those tanks care that they were made in Brewer? Or if they were up in Millinocket? We need other businesses to come into the area.”

The Katahdin Region’s unemployment rate shot toward 40 percent earlier this year after Great Northern shut down and went bankrupt, and now it’s around 25 percent because one of GNP’s two mills started up again in August under new owners. Picard said he’s seen the despair in the towns and he hopes that the region can be economically revitalized.

His consumer confidence level is “very poor.”

“It’s a tough economy, especially in the Katahdin area,” Picard said. “This is a one-horse town. It’s been this way for a long time and I don’t think it’s going to change for a long time. It’s a hard situation.”

Linda Brown, Corinth

Lost 25-year job in November when L&I Atlantic in Bangor closed

By the end of the year, Linda Brown should start collecting unemployment benefits after receiving a regular paycheck for more than 25 years from L&I Atlantic, a now defunct manufacturer of reamers and metal-cutting tools that closed in early November.

Brown suspected something was going wrong at the company earlier this year when “no new orders were coming in and people were being laid off one by one.” She thought it was a cyclical downturn in the economy and not the end of the business itself. That is until a couple of months ago.

“It just started to hit more,” Brown said. “I think the economy is pretty bad, really. There seems to be a lot of manufacturers closing.”

Brown has heard the reports that the nation’s economy is improving. Just don’t try to convince her that it is locally or statewide.

“It may be, but I think Maine will be the last to feel that,” she said. “That’s the way it is. Maine always seems to be the last.”

Even though she just lost her job, and hasn’t found another one yet, Brown said her consumer confidence level on a scale from very good to very poor is “medium.” She’s financially prepared to make it through the holiday season, and her children are grown and out on their own.

“I still want to believe that people are trying to get jobs to come to the state,” she said. “But sometimes it seems that people aren’t doing enough. I could be bitter about this. I really could.”

James Ireland, 41, Belfast

Assistant plant operator and mechanic, Belfast Wastewater Treatment facility

James Ireland has experienced firsthand the downturn in the state’s economy.

Ireland, 41, of Belfast lost his job at the Brewer Wastewater Treatment facility when the plant’s capacity declined after Eastern Fine Paper shut down two papermaking machines in 2002.

Ireland managed to get temporary work at the Old Orchard Beach treatment plant and was hired to a full-time position as assistant plant operator and mechanic at Belfast’s treatment facility in October.

“I don’t think the state’s economy is doing very good at all,” said Ireland. “You look at the want ads and there’s not that many jobs out there. Things are not going good.”

Despite his concerns about the job market, Ireland said he was confident that the state’s economy can bounce back. He said he spent the same on Christmas gifts as he always has and that his consumer confidence level remained good.

While he observed that things could be better, Ireland was reluctant to speculate on what measures the state could undertake to improve things. He is just glad that his own situation had improved greatly over the previous year.

“I feel much more secure,” he said. “Things are fine financially as far as I’m concerned.”

Patricia Whitney, 23 Machias

Mother of 2-year-old Stephanie, and junior at University of Maine at Machias

Patricia Whitney already has plans for when she graduates from college. She’s moving south, possibly to Florida.

“There’s more money there,” she said on a recent holiday shopping trip in Bangor. “There’s none here. You go down there and automatically you double or triple your salary.”

Whitney doesn’t believe that the state’s economic developers are interested in attracting businesses to rural Maine that would employ a solid corps of workers and pay wages to comfortably live on.

“Maine ends at Augusta,” she said. “Not Bangor. Not Ellsworth. I guess that’s a stupid philosophy, but that’s what I think.”

A Dunkin’ Donuts franchise recently opened in Machias, but its coffee and doughnuts are not enough to warm Whitney’s view that Down East is being ignored by those in a position to improve its financial well-being.

“If they could bring things in, some corporations and not businesses like Dunkin’ Donuts,” Whitney said. “That’s all they’re bringing is stuff like Dunkin’ Donuts and we don’t have any money to spend on things like that. I come from a poor town. Everyone around me, I don’t think, has much money.”

Sandra Yapsuga, 45 Bangor

Unemployed; former legal secretary in Boston

Sandra Yapsuga moved to Bangor a couple of years ago to find happiness. And she did.

She just can’t find a job.

A little over a year ago, Yapsuga married her true love, Dr. Leo Yapsuga, who is owner of Evergreen Woods Chiropractic Center, and her car’s license plate reflects her joy. It reads, “JUSTWED.”

Earlier this month, Yapsuga wasn’t that happy, though. She was led to believe – again – that an administrative assistant job she “would be just perfect for” was hers, and she went to TJ Maxx and More and bought a couple of hundred of dollars’ worth of clothes.

It ends up she didn’t get the job and the clothes were going to have to be returned.

Yapsuga is a trained legal secretary who previously worked for one of Boston’s biggest law firms. Her salary there of $48,000 is brought up during job interviews in Bangor, with employers telling her, “Oh, well, we can’t pay you that kind of money.”

“I know that,” Yapsuga said during a recent interview. “They think I’m stupid.”

Although Bangor’s unemployment rate is around 3 percent, about two points below the state average, Yapsuga thinks it’s actually higher than that. She knows first hand that there is heated competition for any office work job that opens up because numerous times she’s been one of 40 or more applicants for that one spot.

Plus, she’s noticed that some businesses truly need the help, but they can’t afford to pay benefits. They’ll hire someone for a 90-day probationary period, and then let that person go and bring someone else in for 90 days.

“I don’t know what it is, but people up here are leery about hiring anybody,” Yapsuga said. “If I were in Portland, I’d have a job right now.”

Throwing the holiday season into the mix hasn’t helped. Yapsuga’s heard the reports that the national economy has been improving lately, but she doesn’t think so. What she really wants is proof in the form of a job.

“I get my hopes up and I get discouraged all the time,” Yapsuga said. “I just wish somebody would give me a chance.”

Then she could change her car’s license plate to “JST-HIRD.”

David Conroe Dover-Foxcroft

Employed by nonprofit Training and Development Corp., and working as project manager for Great Northern Paper Inc. laid-off-worker retraining project.

David Conroe doesn’t think much about the new economy. Too many manufacturing jobs are being eliminated, only to be replaced by lower-paying service positions.

He doesn’t know how the country will survive if its primary industry is services-related. Any change in laws by Congress or any downturn in the economy, and poof! More people are laid off.

“Working in rural Maine like I do, I see what the new economy is doing,” Conroe said. “Smaller towns were relying on big companies for most of their employment. We’ve lost very substantial manufacturing jobs and the replacement jobs are not that good and don’t pay as well. At the same time, when we have an economy like this, it can be a wake-up call.”

Conroe, who manages job-retraining programs for laid-off workers, said he would like to see rural towns be revitalized by small, locally or community-owned businesses instead of returning to the days when one industry dominated the employment landscape.

“Then towns like Millinocket aren’t known as mill towns but towns that happen to have mills,” he said.

Personally, Conroe said his consumer confidence level is “very good.” Like any of the laid-off workers for whom he helps find new jobs, Conroe said he knows that his position at a “private nonprofit that’s funded by the federal government” could be eliminated if the money runs out.

That’s unlikely to happen anytime soon.

“The more we’re having layoffs, the more my job is needed,” he said. “I’m as secure as anyone possibly can be in this economy. I know for a fact that no one’s immune from this economy. Almost anyone can be laid off these days.”

Conroe encourages job seekers to be more aware of where they are now in their career and what they should be doing to prepare for another one, just in case they are laid off. He said he believes workers should continue to pursue education and gain new skills, so they could be promoted within the company they’re at or seek advancement elsewhere.

That is, if new jobs start being created again soon.

“More people are looking for fewer jobs these days,” Conroe said. “The scary thing for most people is when they’re done with training, then what?”

Amanda Savoy, 24 Bangor

Part-time student at Eastern Maine Community College and saleswoman at Microdyne in Orono.

Amanda Savoy has a nickname for her work schedule this holiday season. It’s “mad overtime.”

“That’s what I call it,” she said, after picking up snacks at a Bangor store one recent night before heading to work in Orono. “We’ve had mandatory five hours a week overtime lately.”

Savoy is a business management student at EMCC and supports herself financially by selling computer-system warranties for Microdyne’s contractor Dell Computer Systems. It’s fun work, she said, but she doesn’t plan to make a long-term career out of it.

Savoy believes the state’s economy is in “fair” condition, and is optimistic that it will improve by the time she’s out of school. She’s hedging her bets on two years from now.

“I’m only going part time,” she said about school. “So hopefully it will open up by the time I’m done.”

Duane E. Gray, 57

Blue Hill

Pharmacist, Rite-Aid

Duane E. Gray has his own set of “economic indicators.” They include the looks on the faces of people who frequent the food pantry next to his house or the amount of holiday decorations people put on their homes.

“Every year, we’d take a tour to look at Christmas lights,” Gray said. “We’d take a day or two and drive around. There’s not that much this year. It’s obvious that people are cutting back. I wonder if it’s timing or if it’s the economy.”

More people have visited the Tree of Life Food Pantry in Blue Hill this year, he said, and it’s obvious to him that “something is not as good as it was.”

But Blue Hill, he said, “really isn’t hurting as much” as other parts of the state. And being in the medical or pharmaceutical professions these days offers him and others security.

“I’m confident I’m fine,” Gray said. “I get paid too much. That’s an awful thing to say. But I’m rare. People pay for rare things.”

What Gray means by “rare” is that Maine is experiencing a shortage of pharmacists. People from India and Pakistan are here on work visas to fill in, and many are getting their U.S. work experience at Rite-Aids.

Gray said he doesn’t think Maine does enough to promote new businesses. The state is too conservative, ensuring that the water is sparkling clean and the air is fresher than fresh.

Yet businesses that are viewed as being “obtrusive” have thrived in Maine in the past without being too much of a burden on the environment, he said.

“Blue Hill once was a great mining area without being obtrusive,” he said. “I think that Blue Hill never has been as good as when it was a mining town. We [the state] don’t allow things that would help the economy as much as we should.”

Bill Harford, 78 Belfast


Retiree Bill Harford lives on a fixed income and expresses confidence in the state’s economy.

“I think its going OK,” observed Harford. “Me and my wife are doing fine, as far as that goes.”

Harford said the economy could always use higher-paying jobs but that he was not about to try to give state planners advice on how to accomplish that. He said his friends and family seemed to be getting by “fine” in the current economy, and Harford believes that the state’s economy would continue to do well.

Harford retired from the Belfast Highway Department in 1987 and receives a Maine State Retirement pension. To supplement their pension, Harford and his wife, Albertina, delivered newspapers for 10 years after retiring.

Harford said he and his wife were fortunate because they have a lot of family members in the area who make sure that their needs are met. Between them, the couple have 11 children. A few of their children live out of state, but most reside in the Belfast area.

Harford said that Albertina is on oxygen but that other than that, they are doing fine. He noted that the couple have few needs and manage to live within their means.

Harford has a generally upbeat attitude about the state’s economic performance. However, one thing that bothered him was the state’s decision a few years ago to close the public’s access to Sears Island off Searsport. He said he enjoyed driving over the island and was disappointed in the decision to place a gate across the road.

“The taxpayers spent millions of dollars to build that causeway to the island and the state shut if off,” Harford said. “I think they should open it to the public.”

William Iliffe Sr., 65 Tenants Harbor

Lobsterman for 30 years

Veteran lobsterman William Iliffe Sr., 65, believes that the nation’s economy is in “very good” shape, and that the state’s soon will pick up, too.

It has to, he said.

“I personally think Maine is two years behind the nation,” Iliffe said. “The [national economy] is getting better. I think it’s growing. It’s got to be [better] because I’m on Social Security.”

What Iliffe doesn’t like is paying high taxes, a good portion of his income.

Iliffe has been lobstering for more than 30 years, and before that he worked more than two decades in the aerospace industry. The lobster-fishing business has been good for the past few years, he said, and financially, he is “inching ahead.”

Yet he still thinks Maine’s economy could use some tweaking, such as lowering the state’s infrastructure costs and property taxes. He dislikes the fact that Maine is one of the highest-taxed states for property taxes.

Personally, he has no answers for how to lower Maine property owners’ tax burden, but added, “Other states do it. Why don’t we?”

Larry Hall, 60 Ashland

Manager, Aroostook Music Co. in Presque Isle

Larry Hall never expected to go into retail music equipment sales after spending 35 years as a school music teacher. But the retired Ashland resident was asked to work part time at Aroostook Music Co. more than five years ago fixing equipment used in public schools. Eventually he became store manager and expanded the business into retail sales.

The decision to add retail sales is the reason the business is growing at a time when other industries in northern Maine are taking their hits, Hall said. The store has moved to a bigger location and now is owned by the Northern Kingdom group of music stores, which has four locations statewide. Hall manages the Presque Isle store.

According to Hall, when the economy takes a downturn, people turn to music.

“Take a look at Aroostook County,” Hall said. “We’re based on agriculture and woods products. I’ve never seen a mill in Millinocket being shut down. That puts a ripple effect through the whole economy. And for us to be expanding during that time, it doesn’t make sense. But you know, when times get tough, they say [people turn to] home and hearth and with home and hearth is music. It’s the personal enjoyment of playing a tune, playing with other people. That’s what we’re about here.”

Hall says he knows he’s one of the lucky few whose confidence in the economy is high.

“Is it going to level off?” he asked. “Yes, I imagine, at some point in time. But home and hearth is something you have to take a real good look at.”

NEWS reporters Walter Griffin in Belfast, Leanne M. Robicheau in Rockland and Rachel Rice in Presque Isle contributed to this report.

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