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COBRA coverage would kick in if paper mill closes today


October 13, 2010
GORHAM — If the Fraser paper mill at Cascade goes down today, laid-off paper mill workers at the Fraser Cascade mill would be able to continue their health insurance coverage under federal COBRA (Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act) rules.

This has been a concern for the local United Steel Workers Union, according to union executive committee member Eddy DeBlois of Wentworth's Location.

Because Fraser is in bankruptcy, he explained in a Monday morning telephone interview, COBRA coverage would end when the day comes that all of Fraser's assets are sold, including the Gorham mill.

Workers have been invited to either of two group meetings at the VFW hall in Berlin to learn all the details about COBRA health insurance coverage and its out-of-pocket costs, as well as about their 401K plans and other matters regarding the employer-employee relationship. Each laid-off worker will receive a packet of information put together by Fraser, Mr. DeBlois explained.

The second half of each of these two group meetings will be presentations made by Rapid Response team members who will discuss services offered by the state of New Hampshire, including unemployment benefits and job re-training opportunities.

Workers whose last names begin with any of the initials "A to L" will meet at 10 a.m. on Oct. 14.

Workers whose last names begin with any of the initials "M to Z" will meet at 1:00 p.m.

The size of workers' unemployment checks is also a concern, Mr. DeBlois said. Because of the sporadic nature of the paper mill's operating schedule, some workers will not be eligible to receive the maximum unemployment benefits that are based on a yearly income of $42,500, with weekly benefits of $450.

Some workers, he said, have only worked about 10 weeks in the last year, and they will only receive $190 a week.

The reality is that some laid-off workers may not be able to afford to continue to carry health insurance benefits under COBRA.

He said, however, that there are other likely avenues under which workers can retain their health insurance coverage, including the state's high-risk pool. Workers will qualify, he said, for the federal Health Care Tax Credit program, meaning that their premium costs should be similar to what has been taken out of their paychecks.

The paper mill is considered a victim of foreign competition under the federal Trade Act (TA) of 1974 and its workers eligible for the federal Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) program.

Despite all the preparation for a close-down, Mr. DeBlois said that he, other union officials, Fraser mill manager Willard Blevins, and a host of local and state officials have not given up hope for the mill's sale and continued operation.

Potential buyers are continuing to look at the facility, he said.

Management and the union have worked together for the last eight or nine years in "a positive relationship," and even in these dire times this continues to be the case, Mr. DeBlois said.

Asked if he could respond to off-the-record speculation that the mill could close for up to six months until the gas line being built by the Androscoggin Valley Regional Refuse Disposal District (AVRRDD) is in operation, Mr. DeBlois replied that it appears that "anything is possible." The new gas line is designed to save any mill owner thousands of dollars a month in operational costs.

"We're not ruling anything out, and we're keeping a positive attitude," he said. "Any management team looking to run this mill so that it is competitive needs to understand that we all have the same goals. No one wants to see the building torn down."

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