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Book Review
February 2023

Surveying dislocated workers in the paper industry

Surviving Job Loss: Paper Makers in Maine and Minnesota. By Kenneth A. Root and Rosemarie J. Park. Kalamazoo, MI: W. E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, 2016, 251 pp.,

Using the stories of real human beings, Surviving Job Loss: Paper Makers in Maine and Minnesota, by Kenneth A. Root and Rosemarie J. Park, presents an interesting and detailed case study describing and comparing the experiences of tenured workers displaced in 2011 by the Verso paper mills in Sartell, Minnesota, and Bucksport, Maine. As defined by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, displaced workers are wage and salary workers 20 years of age and over who lost or left their jobs because (1) their plant or company closed or moved, (2) there was insufficient work for them to do, or (3) their position or shift was eliminated. In other words, the workers at the two paper mills lost their jobs through no fault of their own.

In the book’s first two chapters, Root and Park introduce their case study and review the U.S. paper industry’s past and present, emphasizing mill closures and job losses. The more recent challenges of the paper industry—the loss of foreign markets, tougher competition in the United States and abroad, and a decreasing need for paper products because of a transition to electronic options (tablets, e-readers, etc.)—serve as the primary background. To keep up with competitive pressures over the last few decades, many companies had to replace older paper machines with newer ones that required fewer workers. Dislocated workers and their communities were left without comparable employment options when the paper mills closed. According to the authors, despite these challenges and expectations for continued downsizings and permanent mill closures, no adequate research has been done on the plight of displaced paper workers.

Chapter 3 describes the essential elements of the story. In October 2011, the Verso Paper Company announced downsizings at its facilities in Sartell and Bucksport, eliminating 169 and 151 workers, respectively. Seven months later, a tragic fire caused Verso to permanently close its Sartell mill and lay off another 280 workers. To answer various research questions related to these layoffs, Root and Park mailed a paid, confidential survey to former mill workers about 7 to 9 months after the downsizings. For $10, displaced Sartell workers completed 96 questionnaires and Bucksport workers completed 67, recording collection rates of 56 percent and 44 percent, respectively. The survey contained three sample groups: the two groups of Sartell workers laid off 7 months apart and the group of downsized Bucksport workers.

In the questionnaire, former employees explained their post-layoff experiences. Using these accounts and a compilation of various supporting statistics, Root and Park present a compelling narrative, revealing that job loss was not always considered a bad thing (although personal struggles with mental and physical health were common). The authors also report significant differences between responses from each paper mill. For example, 60 percent of workers laid off from Verso’s Bucksport mill considered their job loss “generally good” for them and their families, whereas only 33 percent of Sartell respondents reported the same. The more positive view of job loss at the Bucksport mill was due partly to that mill’s offering many employees early retirement, an option not available at Sartell. Of the three sample groups, the group of workers displaced after the fire at the Sartell mill had the strongest negative response to job loss, experiencing more severe mental health impacts after the mill’s permanent closure.

Chapter 4 discusses employee responses to job loss and how displaced workers at the two paper mills rebounded after losing their jobs. Unfortunately for these workers, most jobs available to them after the layoffs tended to be lower paid and part time. Root and Park’s research shows that, because of concerns about finances and loss of benefits, these workers sharply reduced their expenses, with many spouses of the displaced finding additional work.

Age also played a role in adjusting to job loss. Most workers within each sample were ages 45 or older, and a slow recovery from the Great Recession (2007–09) provided fewer opportunities for experienced (and older) long-term employees. But Root and Park suggest that the displaced mill workers may have had fewer adjustment issues than those experienced by workers in other mass layoffs, because many of them were of retirement age. The survey also reveals that different age groups perceived their new job prospects differently, with younger workers seeing a greater need for new skills or training in their efforts to find new jobs.

In addition, chapter 4 shows that location can make a difference for those looking to rebound after job loss. Although the two surveyed communities were similar in terms of marital status, education, and length of unemployment, differences in their respective regional economies affected the search for new work. With a population of 4,900 people, Bucksport was less than a third the size of Sartell, a large suburb of St. Cloud, Minnesota, and its employees had fewer local employment options, in a more remote location. In Bucksport, displaced mill workers needed more time to find employment, but they also were more likely to take early retirement. Although more Sartell respondents were involved in retraining, majorities in both locales did not engage in this activity.

In chapter 5, Root and Park turn to the types of assistance offered to the employees displaced by the mill layoffs. The authors build their discussion around the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act of 1988, which established advanced notification requirements for planned layoffs, and the Workforce Investment Act of 1998, which established a coordinated system for investment in workforce development. Consistent with the WARN Act, displaced Sartell workers were given 60 days’ notice, whereas their Bucksport counterparts were offered neither a 60 days’ notice nor 60 days’ pay, because their number did not total one-third of the Bucksport workforce. The authors suggest that offering such notice or pay could have provided instant relief, especially regarding mental health. In a 2-month period, outgoing employees could also have received counseling and job-search assistance.

In chapters 6 and 7, Root and Park describe the challenges faced by female workers and spouses of displaced workers at the two paper mills. Because finding work in a historically male-dominated field was difficult, few women were employed in either mill, but the authors were able to acquire key information from them through interviews, mailed questionnaires, and site visits. Compared with men, women were found to feel greater stress related to downsizing, with married women experiencing especially high stress burden.

Not surprisingly, cases in which both adult members of a family were displaced created more stress and marital issues. Root and Park asked such couples how they worked through these challenges, finding that displaced Sartell spouses were more active in searching for new employment than were Bucksport spouses. The authors explain this difference with Minnesota respondents putting more emphasis on financial security than their Maine counterparts.

Sometimes, outside resources were needed to help displaced workers and their families recover. Chapter 8 discusses community-specific adjustment opportunities for displaced workers. Direct aid provided by financial planners, job-search experts, health advisers, and personal counselors had been valuable in past layoffs. Root and Park also note that, through workforce investment boards, community leaders and businesses could establish mutually beneficial training programs, which, when supplemented with job-search and placement assistance, meant a faster return to work. It is interesting to learn that Minnesota had the advantage of having its own workforce investment program, providing more financing to help displaced workers in the state.

In chapter 9, the authors describe similar conditions in the Canadian and American paper industries, but they also point out important socioeconomic differences between the two countries. For example, Canada does not differentiate between active and passive job aspirants for the purposes of unemployment insurance. In an example involving layoffs at a Canadian mill, the authors report that community involvement focused on individuals and families was an effective strategy for coping with job loss, arguing that the same strategy could be worthy of consideration in the United States.

In the final two chapters of the book, Root and Park offer several ideas that, if used by employers, could help displaced workers. Three ideas that stand out are (1) extending the period from closure announcement to layoff beyond 60 days, (2) engaging with employees for ideas how to improve the economic viability of a business and avoid its closure, and (3) implementing education and training programs that would better prepare workers for any possible future displacement.

Although Surviving Job Loss is heavily loaded with information, the authors do a great job of summarizing their findings in charts and tables. Their empathetic approach to storytelling, which makes use of personal details and poignant quotes, makes the book interesting and enables the reader to understand the stress of losing a job in the paper industry. The blending of personal accounts with other labor market statistics, such as data on underemployment, long-term unemployment, population trends, minimum wage, and mass layoffs, is also effective. The authors provide copies of the actual mailed surveys, which is another strong feature of the book.

I think Root and Park’s research provides valuable insight into the experiences of displaced paper-mill workers and has implications for the management of future layoffs. The authors strongly encourage more proactive socioeconomic efforts to help displaced workers cope with financial, physical, and psychological hurdles caused by job loss. Given the relationship between economic security and overall health, Root and Park argue that dislocated workers deserve more attention and assistance from governments, businesses, and communities. No argument from this reviewer.

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About the Reviewer

Dominic Toto

Dominic Toto is a senior economist in the Office of Employment and Unemployment Statistics, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

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