Laid-off Sparrows Point workers return to mill for job-search help

Mike Hartnett is one of hundreds laid off from Sparrows Point this month as the steel mill's owner looks for a buyer. He came back Tuesday in search of a Plan B: What to do if the Baltimore County plant closes for good.

"This place can make money and we know it," the Dundalk man said.

But he can't afford to sit back and assume all will be well. "I've got a daughter in college," he said.

Hartnett and dozens of laid-off colleagues met at the Sparrows Point complex Tuesday for the first session of a two-day resource fair, put on by state and local officials to help workers start their job search and connect them with assistance, including food stamps and foreclosure prevention services.

It's a what-if production — "what if things do not work out," said Steve Connolly, a business services representative with Baltimore County's economic development agency.

Mill owner RG Steel LLC, which filed for bankruptcy-law protection in May, is in the midst of laying off nearly 2,000 workers — almost all of its workforce at Sparrows Point — and idling the mill. An auction is scheduled for July 31 unless an initial, "stalking horse" bidder emerges, in which case the auction will be held no later than Aug. 21.

Sparrows Point has had so many temporary layoffs, so many changes in ownership, that local officials have gotten mill resource fairs down to a science. The last one was held just five months ago, when RG Steel needed an immediate infusion of capital and was laying off workers.

The financing came through right before that fair, which saw a light turnout. This time, with Sparrows Point's future even less certain, officials divided the event into four sessions — morning and afternoon over two days — in anticipation of big numbers.

But on Tuesday, at least, attendance was low — about 120 people. Joe Rosel, president of the local United Steelworkers union, figured that was because workers have been through so much upheaval in the last decade that they have a pretty good handle on the assistance available — and perhaps share his optimism that the mill will once again survive.

Potential buyers with the capital and access to raw materials needed to make Sparrows Point successful are touring the plant and asking detailed questions, he told the morning crowd Tuesday.

"We're one good buyer away from solving this problem, but since we're in the situation that we're in now, this resource fair is important," Rosel said. "Please get all the information you can."

Edward Fangman, chief of Baltimore County's division of workforce development, said Sparrows Point contractors and others affected by the ripple effects of the bankruptcy were welcome to attend the fair. The final two sessions are set for Wednesday from 9 a.m. to noon and 1 to 4 p.m. Both will be held at the mill's training and conference center just inside the property line.

On Tuesday, tables lined hallways in the training center, which was staffed by workforce development officials from across the region — including Pennsylvania — and other agencies offering help.

Outside, workers stepped into a vehicle the size of a very small bus — Baltimore County's "mobile career center" — to kickstart their job search.

Hartnett, 56, who has worked at the mill for 37 years, sat at one of the six computers inside the vehicle and worried aloud that employers would pass him over for younger candidates. He wants — needs — to keep working.

"What you get in my age group is, 'You're overqualified,'" said Hartnett, a fourth-generation steelworker who operates heavy equipment and instructs others. "What that means is, 'You're too old.'"

But Anthony Smith, the mobile career center coordinator, put a different spin on the situation.

"The key is, you all have a lot of skill sets," Smith told Hartnett and others gathered at the computers. "You have a lot to offer."

Back in the training center, Sparrows Point retirees urged passersby to sign a petition calling on President Barack Obama and Congress to go after China for "unfair trade practices" related to its auto-parts imports. And they bemoaned the downturn in an American industry that once employed so many.

When Don Kellner started at the mill in 1955, he was one of about 33,000 workers. Now the Sparrows Point crew is down to one-sixteenth that size — or was, until the latest round of layoffs hit.

"We've got to have a manufacturing base in this country," Kellner said.

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