WATERVILLE — Paper products maker Huhtamaki has laid off about 30 workers temporarily at its Waterville plant as it deals with a slowdown of orders for packaging used by the Chipotle Mexican Grill restaurant chain.

Huhtamaki produces paper fiber trays and bowls for the Denver-based fast-food company, which has been dealing with recent outbreaks of food-borne illnesses linked to its products. In a phone interview Wednesday, the company’s national spokesman, Wess Hudelson, confirmed the layoffs but said some workers have returned to work periodically to fill vacant shifts. The plant employs about 470 people.

The paper containers Chipotle uses for its burrito bowls are one of the major products made at the Waterville plant, and the ordering slowdown forced the company to make workforce reductions, Hudelson said.

Chipotle sales have dropped off significantly after several outbreaks of illnesses linked to food served at its restaurants were reported in recent months.

“You can imagine that business has taken a little bit of a hit, as has our plant in Waterville,” Hudelson said.

“It is a natural part of the business cycle. As business goes down, we have to adjust to that,” he added.


The layoffs were announced in December, and most laid-off workers left after the Christmas holiday. Hudelson said the reductions are temporary, but he could not say when the workers might be able to return to the job.

“We really don’t have a timeline on that. It is dependent on the people who buy their products from us,” Hudelson said. “It would be like trying to make a prediction on someone else’s business, and we don’t do that.”

But Duane Lugdon, a staff representative for United Steelworkers International, the labor union that represents Huhtamaki workers, said Wednesday morning he expects workers to return to their jobs within six to eight weeks as Chipotle restores its customer base. The restaurant chain, which has 1,900 locations, announced earlier this week it’s closing all its restaurants for a day, Feb. 8, to discuss safety changes with employees and will begin “inviting customers back” after that.

“I fully expect that when they get their patronage rebuilt, ordering at Huhtamaki should return to normal levels,” Lugdon said.

If workers still aren’t back to work that soon, they will be recalled to fill in for people when the summer vacation season starts, Lugdon added.

The Chipotle products are a “sizable chunk” of Huhtamaki’s business, but the slowdown in ordering will not threaten the Waterville plant’s future, Lugdon said.


The factory, which sprawls across the Waterville and Fairfield municipal boundary, also makes Chinet brand paper tableware; and last August, it got a major contract to make recyclable trays for six of the country’s largest school districts.

The company began operations in Waterville as Keyes Fiber in 1908. The plant has been owned by the Finnish company Huhtamaki since the 1990s.

Democratic state legislators reacted to the news of the layoffs in written statements released Wednesday afternoon.

“This is very tough news at a time when good jobs with strong wages can’t be taken for granted,” said Rep. Henry Beck, D-Waterville. “I stand with the employees and I hope that my constituents feel free to reach out if they need assistance,” he added.

Thomas Longstaff, the other house Democrat representing Waterville, said his thoughts were with the Huhtamaki employees.

“We hope things improve for them very soon and that they will be able to return to work quickly. We are here to offer whatever support that they might need,” Longstaff said.


House Majority Leader Jeff McCabe, of Skowhegan, said the jobs were vital for central Maine. “This challenge underscores how important it is for Maine’s leaders to work together to strengthen our economy,” McCabe said. “We must keep our focus on growing economic opportunity and security for Maine people,” he added.

Chipotle’s Mexican-style food has surged in popularity across the U.S., but the company has dealt with food safety concerns recently after it temporarily closed dozens of stores in November following an E. coli outbreak in Washington state and Oregon. In December, more than 100 Boston College students became sick with a norovirus transmitted at a Chipotle location in Boston. Those reports followed earlier problems at Chipotle restaurants in Minnesota and California, prompting the company to announce an enhanced food safety program to examine ingredients and food preparation methods.

The company reported that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notified it on Dec. 21 that federal officials were investigating five cases of E. coli linked to Chipotle restaurants in Kansas, Oklahoma and North Dakota.

The problems have caused Chipotle’s sales to plummet by an estimated 15 percent in the last quarter of 2015.

Chipotle has four restaurants in Maine, including its restaurant in Augusta, which opened in late 2014.

Peter McGuire — 861-9239


Twitter: @PeteL_McGuire

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