Gov. Paul LePage has some bad news for southern Maine — there are 900 layoffs coming, although he won’t say which company is affected. But his comments Wednesday night set off a scramble to try to find out.
LePage let the cat partway out of the bag during a town hall meeting he staged in Orono.
“There’s a big company - it hasn’t come out yet,” he said. “I happen to know about it and I’m sworn to secrecy until they make a public announcement. But we’re talking 900 jobs. Nine-hundred jobs in the most prosperous part of our state. Down south, in northern Massachusetts.”
By northern Massachusetts, LePage usually means York or Cumberland counties. LePage said the company in question is a big energy user — and he complained that commercial energy prices in Maine which, while the lowest in New England, are among the highest in the nation.
Attention quickly turned to the largest energy-intensive manufacturers in southern Maine. First on the list: Fairchild Semiconductor in South Portland, which announced late last year it would be acquired by an Arizona based chip-maker called ON Semiconductor in a $2.8 billion deal.
Some analysts say the deal could lead to layoffs because the companies offer similar products and the Maine facility is older.
“They’re a very large employer, a good employer in the community,” says Joshua Reny, assistant city manager in South Portland. “A lot of good-paying high-tech jobs, so we’re obviously following it quite closely.”
Reny says the city got so many inquiries about LePage’s remarks, it sent out a press release to say the city had no information about whether Fairchild was planning layoffs.
Fairchild officials did not respond to requests for comment and a spokesperson for ON would only say that the deal is still pending.
Officials at Pratt & Whitney in North Berwick, another large southern Maine manufacturer, did respond to questions. In a statement, the company said it had no plans for any layoffs and was, in fact, hiring.
So are other manufacturers in Maine, one reason why Chris Hall, executive director of the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce, says that while the loss of 900 jobs anywhere in southern Maine will be a serious blow, it could be worse.
“Lots of companies are looking for workers,” he says. “One of the silver linings in a very bad news day is that if 900 people lose their jobs in southern Maine there are other careers to pursue. This part of the economy is in a better posture to absorb those workers than we’ve seen in other regions of the state where unemployment is higher and their job opportunities are fewer.”
Hall agrees with LePage that energy prices are a drag on Maine’s economy. But he also argues those costs are just one part of the equation — with some high-energy users, such as South Portland’s Casco Bay Steel Structures, still manging to prosper and grow.
And there are other positive signs. Julie Rabinowitz, a spokesperson for the state Department of Labor, says that more than 100 workers, laid off last week when a mental health center based in Brunswick closed its doors, are finding new opportunities.
“We haven’t had really much notice on that one, but we have had more than three-dozen employers reach out to us and we were able top pull together a job fair in a little more than a week in order to help those workers transition directly into new positions,” she says.
Rabinowitz adds that the department has not received notice of an impending, massive layoff in southern Maine, while the law requires so-called WARN notices to be filed at least 60 days before big layoffs are planned. So for the moment, the layoffs that LePage predicts are just that, a prediction.