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Women of Steel

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Paper mill jobs are becoming a popular occupation for females

BANGOR - Finding work is still a struggle for many Americans, but a small group of Maine women has found employment in what some would consider the most unlikely of places: the state's paper mills. Over the years, many of these mills have been at risk of closing and some have even shut down for good like the Eastern Fine paper mill in Brewer that is now home to Cianbro. But despite these economic challenges, these steel-boot, hard-hat-wearing females have not only remained fiercely focused but held onto their jobs too.

"Some mills may have just three or four women working in the production areas," said Linda Fairbrother of Verso Paper in Bucksport. "[But mill jobs] provide a very good living and we have benefits."

Fairbrother admits women are still the minority among Maine's paper mill employees. However, thanks to the United Steelworkers Union or USW, they've continued to earn equal pay for equal work even during tough times. Many have even moved up the ladder at the mill in Bucksport as well as Waterville, Rumford and Jay.

"They work on the paper machines or repair heavy equipment. I run an excavator," explained Fairbrother. "Not everyone wants to do office type work or even indoor work."

That was the case for Sharon Burgess, who has spent more than 20 years in the business. She's currently a third hand or paper machine operator at the Rumford mill.

"I didn't want to work in the mill, but I used to be a secretary for a lawyer in Alabama when I was down there, then when I moved back I said, 'Well, I'll give it a try.' There weren't a lot of jobs and it's good money," said Burgess.

Burgess, Fairbrother and the other women who work in Maine's mills are all members of the Maine Council Women of Steel who meet quarterly to exchange ideas, participate in educational programs and to lobby on issues that support the paper mill industry.

"My first reaction [to these meetings] was it has taken me 20 years to become one of the guys. We're all USW, why are we separating ourselves? And the first meeting I went to, I said that," said Burgess. "But the meetings actually show me what they're doing in other mills and show me they have some of the same issues that we do in our mill."

These women said working in a male-dominated field has its challenges. It is a physically demanding job that often consists of 12-hour shifts, but they said there is just nothing else like it out there.

"Paper mills are the best paying jobs for people who only have a high school education. There is the ability and opportunity to advance," said Fairbrother. "Most jobs in our area don't pay close to what we make. And the paper mills are mostly union, so you're going to be guaranteed that you'll be treated equally."

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