The U.S. Department of Labor has approved funding for a program that will help displaced employees at Madison Paper Industries acquire new skills and training after the mill closes in May, according to an announcement from U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King and U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, R-2nd District.

The federal Trade Adjustment Assistance program provides job training and worker assistance to workers who have been adversely affected by foreign competition.

Last year Madison Paper filed a federal complaint against a Canadian paper mill alleging that unfair government subsidies to Port Hawkesbury Paper were hurting the U.S. market for supercalendered paper. In December the U.S. Department of Commerce ruled in Madison’s favor and ordered that duties of up to 20 percent be placed on supercalendered paper imported from Canada.

Collins, King and Poliquin said in a joint statement Tuesday that the foreign competition played a large role in last month’s announcement that the mill will close, putting about 215 employees out of work.

“This announcement is welcome news for the more than 200 hardworking men and women at Madison Paper Industries who are being displaced,” the delegation said. “TAA plays an essential role in helping Americans across our country who, through no fault of their own, have lost their jobs as a result of foreign — and often unfair — competition.”

Mike Croteau, president of the United Steelworkers Local 36, one of two unions at Madison Paper, called the news Tuesday “outstanding” and said it has been much anticipated by workers since the AFL-CIO filed a petition requesting the federal assistance last month.

“A lot of our members have been waiting and waiting for this to come through,” Croteau said.

In November, funding for the program was also approved to help workers laid off at the Androscoggin Mill in Jay. In addition to paying for training programs or for workers to go back to school, the program also reimburses workers for lost wages if they find a job that doesn’t pay as much as the job they lost.

“We have a lot of workers over the age of 50 who are probably going to end up taking jobs that will be a significant pay cut,” Croteau said. “Part of the TAA program offsets those lost wages.”

Since the Madison mill announced last month that it will be closing in May, employees have been meeting with state Rapid Response teams and Career Center workers who have been assisting them with the transition.

Negotiations with Madison Paper on severance packages are ongoing, but Croteau said the company so far has presented an above average severance package to workers.

“We expected that,” he said. “This isn’t a company that’s going through bankruptcy and can’t pay their bills. This is a company that has decided for whatever reason to shut the doors at Madison Paper.”

In their announcement last month about the mill closing, Madison Paper parent companies UPM-Kymmene Inc. and SC Paper Corp. cited declining demand for supercalendered paper and said that the Madison mill “is not cost-competitive.”

In addition to two weeks of pay for every year worked, with a 52-week cap, employees probably will receive full health insurance benefits through October, Croteau said.

“It’s not an unreasonable severance package. We need to work out a few details, but for the most part our members like what we’ve negotiated with the company,” he said. Still, there are more than 40 members of the United Steelworkers union that have worked more than 26 years at the mill and will not get severance for the additional years worked.

“It’s frustrating that they’re not going to get severance for those years, but the good news is they’re still going to walk away with a year of pay in their pocket,” Croteau said.

Rachel Ohm — 612-2368

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Twitter: @rachel_ohm