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When it comes to jobs, there is good news and bad in the old mill town of East Millinocket, Maine. People there were delighted to see a shuttered paper mill re-open last month, but somewhat less pleased with what the new jobs would pay.
In our continuing series, Hard Times: A Journey Across America, NPR's Tovia Smith has this report.
TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: East Millinocket calls itself the town that paper made. For more than a century, the mill here has churned out giant spools of paper and unfurled the American Dream for generations in these remote northern woodlands. A mill job meant you could afford your own house, with a new truck in the driveway and a snowmobile or two in the yard.
When the mill closed last spring, it was devastating. Unemployment shot up to nearly 22 percent. So no surprise when the great northern paper mill re-opened last month, folks were thrilled.
ELIZABETH MORRIN: Oh, it's wonderful, wonderful. It gives me a big thump in my heart when I see that steam coming out of those stacks down there.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
SMITH: From across the street, Elizabeth Morrin says she thought she'd never see it.
MORRIN: I just kept praying. I guess the whole town prayed, everyone around, because these mills are all we have.
GOVERNOR PAUL LEPAGE: How are you?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Happy as I can be to be here. Thanks for your help.
LEPAGE: Thank you.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Thank you very much for it.
SMITH: It was all smiles when Maine Governor Paul LePage celebrated with some of the 217 workers lucky enough to get jobs out of the nearly 1,000 who applied. But you didn't have to scratch deep to find more mixed emotions.
ROGER REARDON: You're not happy, but, hey, I mean you got to survive too. I mean...
SMITH: As 56-year-old Roger Reardon knows, this is not their grandfathers' paper mill with starting wages, for example, down to 11 bucks an hour, which was the going rate decades ago.
REARDON: We're going backward. I mean, this is the future. You're supposed to be going forward, not back down to what people are getting. I mean, to me, that don't seem right.
KEVIN GREGORY: Eleven bucks an hour. I would never go back for $11 an hour.
SMITH: Kevin Gregory was a union president before he was laid off in 2008. He thinks the new wages are an insult for such hard work and long shifts.
GREGORY: It's dirty. It's loud. I worked in the steam plant, so it's hot all the time. In the summertime, it's even worse. You know, you go up on the burner deck and it's 140, 150 degrees, and you can't even breathe.
SMITH: Gregory, who now works as a counselor to other laid off workers, says he understands their frustration.
GREGORY: I have a mortgage. I have a car payment. I have a child who's going to go to college. Eleven dollars an hour wouldn't cut it for me.
CINDY FLEMMING: They're spoiled. They're spoiled. They got so used to the bigger paychecks. They don't know how to live without.
SMITH: Sixty-year-old Cindy Flemming balances an armload of books and clothing as she shuffles through the town's thrift shop.
FLEMMING: Yeah. And these little pants are really cute, and they're only like 2 bucks. You got to do whatever you have to do today to save money.
SMITH: Flemming says her husband just took a mill job for 30 percent less than what he was making. But it's better than nothing, she says, which is what she had as a kid. Her father worked as a woodcutter, barely putting food on the table, but that was all we knew, Flemming says, so we didn't complain. Folks today, she says, need to learn how to make do with less.
FLEMMING: You can get a cookbook in any one of these thrift shops for 25 cents and a big bag of flour, a bag of sugar. I can put a meal together with hardly anything. Know what I'm saying? You can still live on $11 an hour. It's not that it's going to be easy, but if I have to, I know how to do it.
SMITH: It's a kind of bravado that's not uncommon up here in this cold, northern corner of New England, where folks are as hardy as they are frugal, and making do is a kind of badge of honor.
MORRIN: We grew up, we didn't even have a bathtub for heaven sakes.
SMITH: Seventy-eight-year-old Elizabeth Morrin eventually did a bit better raising her own six children on her husband's mill job.
You might think folks like her would be most sympathetic to others struggling now. But experts say, those who've managed to pull themselves up by their bootstraps often want to see others do the same, and Morrin is no exception.
MORRIN: This might be a good thing for this town. They've had things easy for a long time. They've got all of these toys. They have the snowmobiles, they own a camp. You know, it's - people, I think, should pare back anyway in what they do. You know, a little attitude adjustment, you know?
(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)
SMITH: Back at the mill, where workers are loading paper rolls once again for less than they used to...
(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)
SMITH: ...that adjustment has not been the smoothest, especially for guys like Jim Nicholson, who've been at the mill since the heyday.
JIM NICHOLSON: Yeah, everybody knows what they once had. You know, we went from a peak down to where does it end? And that's causing a bit of heartburn.
SMITH: It's easy to relate to the American Dream and moving on up, but going the other way, in a kind of fall from grace, is usually harder to get your head around. So experts say it's not uncommon for things to get a little biting between the have-nots and the used-to-haves.
KIM LYON: Sometimes there's always that little bit of the devil sitting on your shoulder saying: I had to work. Now they have to.
SMITH: Kim Lyon's husband was one of those doing well at the mill until he lost his job in 2008.
LYON: I think it's human nature to be jealous of other people, like, you know, keeping up with Joneses. Well, now some of Joneses don't have, so the people that wanted to keep up with the Joneses sort of are like, yes. You know, now they're struggling. I struggled my whole life. It's a little bit of that.
SMITH: Desperate times can bring out the worst in folks as well as the best.
BECKY HAMLIN: What can I get you, sir?
SMITH: Becky Hamlin, a bartender at the local pub, was laid off from the mill last spring and has been working two jobs for more hours and less money ever since.
HAMLIN: I was spoiled.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
HAMLIN: But if it's gone, it's gone. We'll survive. You know, you got to do what you got to do. We're tough. We're Mainers.
SMITH: As much as the lower wages would hurt, Hamlin says the mill jobs are still better than anything else you can find up here in these Maine woodlands. She's applied for a job and is waiting to hear. As she puts it: I'm one who would absolutely love to get that call.
Tovia Smith, NPR News.
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