Mediation between Hostess Brands Inc. and the bakers’ union Tuesday could complicate the former bakery employees’ efforts to apply for state unemployment benefits, according to the Maine Department of Labor.

After a bankruptcy judge in New York overseeing Hostess’ dissolution invalidated a request on Monday by the company to liquidate assets, representatives from the Bakery, Confectionary, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union will meet in private mediation with company representatives.

Bakers’ union members will not be eligible for state unemployment benefits until union officials call off the strike, which, given the mediation, is technically ongoing, said Julie Rabinowitz, spokeswoman for the Maine Department of Labor.

A little-known part of state labor law enacted in 1997 prohibits workers from collecting unemployment benefits for the time they are on strike.

Despite the last-minute talks, many former Hostess Brands Inc. employees have been advised to apply now for state help.

“As standard Department of Labor policy, we encourage everyone who believes they’re entitled to unemployment to apply,” Rabinowitz said.

Earlier on Monday, state labor officials rendered a preliminary decision that will bar workers from collecting benefits for the first week of their picket.

Hours later, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Robert Drain denied Hostess’ bid to liquidate its assets.

Alan Ray Churchill, vice president for Teamsters Local No. 340, which represented about 120 employees, said little is likely to come of mediation. The Teamsters union, meanwhile, had been at odds with the bakery workers over the decision to strike.

“Once the product comes off the shelf, it’s over,” Churchill said. “Even if they fire (ovens) back up they’ve lost so many customers they wouldn’t be able to survive.”

As negotiators continue to meet, Maine officials will continue to shepherd Hostess employees through benefit applications. Two sessions are slated Tuesday with bakery workers, while Teamsters met with the state’s team Monday.

Mike Castaneda, a benefits coach who was deployed to an Augusta career center to discuss employment options with about a dozen displaced Teamsters, said that although the job market is tough, applicants should stay positive and remain diligent in their search.

“It really depends on attitude,” Castaneda said, himself a former worker at a now-shuttered paper mill in Livermore Falls. “If they really want to go out there and they have the right credentials in place, they can do it.”

Churchill, who atttended Monday’s two-hour presentation, echoed the anger of his members at the financial collapse of Hostess.

“The jobs they’re going to get won’t have fully paid health care,” he said. “The wages will be lower. The average wage for our members is $1,000 a week. They’re not going to walk out of here and find that.”

Jerry Gould said the last time he looked for work, it was 1983.

“This was an excellent job to go get,” said Gould, who is less than a year from retirement. “I never expected this would happen in my lifetime.”

Gould said said it’s scarier than hell to apply against people decades his junior. “I’m 59 years old,” he said. “Who’s going to hire me?”

Alan Burns, who was shop steward for the Teamsters in Augusta, said he was angry that he had no input in the decision to close Hostess and at the bakers’ union.

“Whether it was mismanagement from the top, we’re still here,” said Burns, 54. “I had no say-so. They took us down with ’em.”


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