By Andrea Swiedom
Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of interviews with displace mill workers. Mark Swiedom is the writer Andrea Swiedom’s dad.
REGION — “Those were the happiest years of my life, going to school was the happiest years of my life. So much so, I intend to go back!” Mark Swiedom said while sitting on the opposite end of a quilting table in his garage.
This is where we meet these days, my father and I, at opposite ends of a table, wearing masks in his heated garage in Hebron. Sometimes one of my parents’ curious llamas will peer through the window while we deprive ourselves of a hug for the sake of a future full of embraces.
On this particular visit, I had the number 177 on repeat in my mind — the amount of people Pixelle Specialty Solutions laid off from the Androscoggin Mill last year — as my dad went over the details of leaving his job as a mechanical maintenance worker in Jay.
The earliest of memories of my dad, Mark Swiedom, was of him waking up at 3:30 a.m. for his shift at the Androscoggin paper mill and returning home late in the evening in grease-stained coveralls after working overtime.
“Paper mills are hot, they’re dirty, they’re full of toxic chemicals that you have to be very careful working around so you don’t get exposed,” he said. “And then the work, it’s just in cramped quarters and greasy and like I said, hot and steamy…they don’t heat the mills, they just let the heat from the machines heat the mills. In the summertime, it’s brutal under those closed-in buildings.”
In 2015, the Androscoggin Mill was owned by Verso Corporation which announced that approximately 300 workers were to be laid off and encouraged volunteers by offering early retirement to senior employees. At the age of 60, my dad opted for so-called retirement with no hesitation.
“I was probably the first person to go down to the office and say, ‘put me on the list for this.’”
After working at the mill for 28 years, Dad said that he was suffering mentally from boredom and physically from the working conditions.
“It’s brutal, temperatures of a 130 degrees are common in many of the places you work with high humidity to boot,” he said. “You can’t cool yourself, you just have to get away and get to a cool room to cool down…for me, all of that, 28 years of that is like, ‘enough.’ And I was in a point in my life and probably had been for 10 years where if I had seen a way to go do something else interesting and not ruin myself financially, I would have done it.”
On Nov. 15, 2015, “The Swede,” as his coworkers often called him, drove through the mill gate for the last time.
“To me, it had always been a good paying job, but I didn’t love it where many people had grown up in these local communities which I hadn’t,” Dad said. “I was an outsider in that sense. And their families – two, three generations – owed their whole financial prosperity and everything and their culture was tied up in the mill. So it was a different thing for them to walk away. It’s almost a culture death for them.”
While my family may not have the long-standing history that others have with the Androscoggin Mill, my household still greatly depended on that paper mill to make ends meet. The months leading up to that monumental departure day were full of anxiety and fear.
My parents weren’t ready to survive on a single income and it seemed as though no one was hiring. Or if they were, they weren’t hiring maintenance people in their 60s despite decades of mechanical knowledge.
Finally, an opportunity arose and Dad accepted a job with the Lewiston school system as a janitor with the potential to move into a maintenance position. But then he learned about the option to attend college with all expenses covered under the Trade Act, a federal program that supports displaced workers through education and training in related fields.
The prospect of going to college for the first time was enough for my father to quickly change course.
“I was honest with myself,” he said and told himself, “‘no, I don’t, I don’t want to do the same kind of work at all. I want to do something different that I consider more interesting.’”
Within a month, he was enrolled at Central Maine Community College (CMCC) in the medical coding and electronic health records program.
“When I started looking into the school and seeing what was available, and I’ve always been a science buff, I thought, ‘wow look at all of the science classes I can take in medical coding,’” he recalled.
The process of having a program approved is no easy task under the Trade Act if it doesn’t fall under the prescribed parameters. For a pipe fitter coming out of a paper mill, medical coding was not considered a realistic direction for my father to pursue.
Instead, it was predetermined that these displaced workers should remain in related fields and become electricians or study precision machining.
More freedom of study will be allotted to the 177 workers who were recently laid off from the Androscoggin Mill as funding will not come from the federal government but from a $1 million private fund established by Pixelle Specialty Solutions.
Workers will have until July to enroll in an associates, certificate or workforce training program of their choice at either CMCC or Kennebec Valley Community College.
For my father, acceptance into the medical coding program required consistent petitioning and letters of support from professionals that demonstrated a labor market need in that field. He did all of this within a month so that he could start school in the 2016 spring semester.
Adding to the stressors of this decision were finances. During this month, my step-mom’s position as a medical transcriptionist was outsourced and her pay was drastically cut. While the Trade Act permitted Dad to draw from unemployment while attending school, they were primarily depending on her income level to survive the next two years.
She worked longer hours to make up for the pay cut while my dad went to school. They had just enough to cover the basics, keep oil in the tank, keep the lights on and buy groceries.
Dad said that while budgeting was tough, he never second-guessed his decision to go to college. He did have anxiety though surrounding his future ability to perform in his field once he graduated.
“Because I had never worked in medicine for one minute and before I went to school, I never paid attention to computers. I avoided them like the plague and I knew that’s where my weakness was,” he said. “I was a good student, but I knew my computer skills were really rough.”
He remembers that his eagerness to learn quickly won over professors and students alike and that being the oldest person in class actually worked to his benefit as he was perceived as a father figure. He came up to speed on technology with the assistance of his peers, and I watched my dad transform from using an old-school cell phone to lecturing me on the benefits of a smart phone.
There was also the basic hurdle that he had never been in a college setting before and the last time he had taken a course such as algebra was back in the 70s during high school. Within a year however, Dad was working at the tutoring center and leading a very popular, professor-recommended study group.
“Socially…for me, it was way more exposure than I had anticipated, but it was in a controlled environment so I wasn’t quite overwhelmed,” he said.
“It was a lot of fun and to this day, I love to tutor.”
Dad graduated from CMCC in the spring of 2018 with high honors and the student of the year award, and his internship at Maine Medical Center transitioned into a full-time position.
“I had a 3.982 grade point average because I made an A minus in my last semester on one class,” my dad said while laughing with what I refer to as his old man wheeze. “So I stumbled at the finish line, didn’t quite make a 4.0, but I had a great experience in school. For me, the honor of going to school was having the friendship and the support and the respect that my teachers gave me, in particular.
As it turns out, my dad’s initial anxieties were just nerves. He has quickly excelled in his field and has been promoted to a provider auditor and education specialist. The position consists of verifying that hospitals are charging patients appropriately for the care they received and educating doctors on how to accurately document their services.
Now that my dad is 65, he also has his sights set on obtaining a bachelor’s degree in data science since seniors in Maine can take courses for free at the University of Maine system.
“What I would really like to do is get that degree and teach at the local community college,” he said.