South Carolina steel mill layoffs stir fresh anxieties
GEORGETOWN — Life was good, and prosperous, for Josh Dennis. He and his wife just had their first baby, and planned for her off-season layoff time as a sales manager at a Myrtle Beach hotel. Then he got laid off from his job at ArcelorMittal Steel.
For some of the laid-off workers at Arcelor Mittal, their best prospects to learn a new job skill will come if money is approved through the federal Trade Adjustment Assistance Act.
Georgetown union leader James Sanderson said the application for the affected former steel mill employees is in, and government officials must confirm that people were laid off because of competition from steel imports from China. Sanderson expects the funds will be approved. Workers who qualify 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 the mill.
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“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.
He thinks he and his wife will move back home to Ohio, where there are more opportunities, including at other steel mills.
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.
Brian Weatherbee also is thinking he may give up on the 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.
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, ArcelorMittal, 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 spokesperson said in a statement. “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.
S.C. Department of Employment and Workforce representatives are expected to come to the union hall this week to meet with the laid-off workers to help them with resumes and search for possible new jobs.