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Former Hostess workers scramble after job loss

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Hostess also is narrowing down possible bidders for its venerable dessert cake business, which includes Twinkies and Ding Dongs.

Hostess isn’t the only one trying to raise money. The job loss prompted Marzuco to sell one of the family’s two cars the week before Christmas. The $1,500 didn’t stretch far.

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"My whole existence relies on my checks," said Marzuco, who is his family’s sole source of income. His wife, Sheila, stays home to care for their two grandchildren, ages 6 and 7, who live with the couple.

Hostess Brands faced financial difficulties for years. After emerging from its first bankruptcy in 2009, Hostess continued to struggle, reporting a net loss of $1.1 billion in its 2012 fiscal year.

Union truck drivers, represented by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, approved their contract with Hostess in September, agreeing to salary reductions of up to 8 percent as part of the company’s turnaround plan.

But the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union wouldn’t agree to further concessions and initiated the strike in November.

Bakery workers, angry over concessions made in earlier contracts and bonuses promised to Hostess executives, contended that wage and benefit concessions were too steep after years without raises.

Some former Hostess workers have been critical of the bakers union for not accepting wage and other concessions. But their focus now is about moving forward.

"It was financial mismanagement from the company. It wasn’t the unions," said Merlenbach, a Teamsters member.

Hostess’ repeated ownership changes and trips through bankruptcy court gave many employees the sense that trouble was looming, said Debi Loewe. She worked for 13 years as a retail clerk at the Hostess store in Desloge, Mo.

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At times, some employees wondered whether the store’s doors would be locked for good when they arrived at work. "We always had the motto that ‘if the key fits, we work,’ " she said.

The store, which served as a depot for other Hostess stores, had 16 employees before it shuttered.

Loewe, 57, saw her hours at the Desloge store cut from 40 to 24 in recent years. To have enough hours to maintain her health insurance, she scrambled to find fill-in hours at other Hostess stores. Her husband, who is disabled, is on her health insurance, which runs out at the end of January.

Loewe has been unable to find a new job. Many retailers already had their holiday staffing in place when Hostess closed its doors.

"Right now, it’s a big strain," she said. "My husband took early retirement, and his only income is Social Security."

Loewe recently attended one of the Missouri’s Department of Economic Development’s "Rapid Response Team" meetings, which offer displaced workers help with their job search, assistance in filing for unemployment and training opportunities.

John Fougere, the DED’s director of communications, said it’s critical for displaced workers to take steps immediately to begin their job search and tap into available resources.

For Gary Phillips, a former baker at Hostess’s St. Louis plant, the habits from working at the same job for more than three decades are ingrained deeply in his psyche. Though he lost his job making snack cakes at the Hostess plant in north St. Louis two months ago, an internal clock still awakens him at 3 a.m., for a 4 a.m. shift that no longer exists.

Unable to sleep, Phillips now finds himself turning to housework in the middle of the night. "I start vacuuming," he said. "The hardest part is you’ve been doing something for 36 years, and that routine is gone."

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