Laid-off steel mill workers consider their options

Life was good, and prosperous, for Josh Dennis. He and his wife just had their first baby, and planned for her offseason layoff time as a sales manager at a Myrtle Beach hotel. Then he got laid off from his job at ArcelorMittal Steel.

“Now, everything’s just falling apart,” Dennis, 30, said Monday morning as he and some of the mill’s other 19 laid-off steelworkers gathered to work on what their next steps will be.

Tallying figures, Dennis said his expenses are $2,700 a month and his family income with his unemployment and his wife’s is $2,600.

He thinks he and his wife will move back home to Ohio, where there are more opportunities, including at other steel mills. Although, he added, “I’ve been laid off three times from a steel mill” and he will consider other jobs as well.

Dennis is among several of those laid off who are not sure they will wait around to see if the steel mill calls them back to work. The 20 were furloughed Oct. 26 in a cutback that also left 20 slots open, leaving the wire rod mill with two shifts instead of three.

All of the laid-off workers have been at the mill less than two years. If they had been there two years or more, they would be eligible for up to $75,000 in severance pay in addition to unemployment, said James Sanderson, president of United Steelworkers Local 7898.

The remaining workers are now on 12-hour, three-day shifts, Sanderson said.

Justin Howard, 28, said he doesn’t think he wants to go back to the steel mill, despite the good pay.

“If I don’t find a job soon, I’m going to go back to school and get a welding certificate,” he said.

He said he can’t live on the unemployment pay.

“I’ve got three young kids,” Howard said, and his wife stays home with them. He said he put a little savings away for the kids’ Christmas, and will do odd jobs or whatever he can until he can find another job.

“I’ll do whatever I can do to support my family,” Howard said.

Brian Weatherbee also is thinking he may give up on the steel mill.

“I’m probably going to go back to school and study heating and air conditioning,” he said. “I’m 45 years old and I’m too old to be jumping from job to job.”

He had been laid off from a manufacturing job in Kentucky, and moved to Georgetown. He and his wife may consider going back to Kentucky, he said.

For some of the laid-off workers, their best prospects to learn a new job skill will come if money is approved through the federal Trade Adjustment Assistance Act.

Sanderson said the application is in, and government officials must confirm that people were laid off because of competition from Chinese steel, and he expects the funds will be approved later this week.

Workers who qualify for the program can continue to get unemployment assistance while they are in school. The state allows only 20 weeks of unemployment, which had some of the furloughed workers feeling glum.

It will be hard to find a new job in 20 weeks, some said, though some still hope to be called back to work.

Some said they fear the layoffs are the start of a decline that could result in the plant being closed. When a new union contract was approved last month, only a few weeks before the layoffs, “we were all excited,” Weatherbee said.

But in just a few weeks, the company, the world’s largest steelmaker, said Chinese imports began to crowd out the competition.

The company could not say when or if it will call workers back.

“ArcelorMittal is being forced to respond to the impact that wire rod imports are having on our primary producer of wire rod in the United States,” a company spokesperson said in an email statement issued Monday.

“The company is carefully monitoring the situation and anticipates returning to a three-crew operation when market conditions can sustain full operations.”

Weatherbee said, “We make good steel.”

But if Chinese products can undercut the price, the quality won’t help, Sanderson said.

“We don’t know how much longer our plant will survive,” if the Chinese imports continue, he said.

Getting the port in Georgetown dredged would help a great deal, Sanderson said.

Currently, the plant has to import its raw material to the port in Wilmington, N.C., and truck it to Georgetown. If the port was at its approved 27-foot depth, ships could bring in the steel pellets the plant uses, and that would be much less expensive than trucking the goods, Sanderson said.

Port dredging has been delayed because the port did not have enough business to justify the expense, most of which comes from the federal government. Sanderson said it’s a tough problem because ships can’t use the port if the channel is too shallow, so the usage rate goes down.

State Department of Employment and Workforce representatives are to come to the union hall next week to meet individually with the laid-off workers to help them with their resumes and finding possible new jobs.