By Jamie Smith Hopkins, The Baltimore Sun
6:29 PM EDT, September 4, 2012
More than 700 people turned out for workshops Tuesday connecting laid-off Sparrows Point workers with information about health insurance, training and other aid.
An even larger number is expected at additional sessions scheduled for 9 a.m. to noon and 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday, both at the training center on the steel mill complex.
Similar events in June drew much smaller crowds — employees were optimistic then that the idled Sparrows Point would be sold to a steelmaker and reopened. But a redevelopment firm working with a liquidation company won the bankruptcy auction in August.
Though both companies have said they hope to find an operator for the plant, there's a lot less optimism now — and a lot more anxiety. The turnout for Tuesday's events "speaks volumes," said Edward Fangman, chief of Baltimore County's division of workforce development.
For Ty Toran and many other workers, a key priority now is getting health insurance back. Mill owner RG Steel stopped those benefits Friday.
"I have to have it because I have children," said Toran, 40, a father of three. "It's not an option."
The workers are eligible for the federal Health Coverage Tax Credit, which pays 72.5 percent of monthly medical insurance premiums. United Steelworkers representatives walked people through one insurance option, which costs $397.88 a month for a family plan — without prescription coverage — after the tax credit. That's nearly a week's worth of unemployment benefits for those getting the $430 maximum in Maryland.
Applications for the tax credit, along with federal training aid and other job help, are handled through the state's one-stop employment centers.
"We've received hundreds of phone calls already," said Scott R. Jensen, interim secretary of the state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation.
Navigating the process alongside roughly 2,000 co-workers isn't easy. Helena Rich of Woodlawn hopes to start training this month in medical billing and coding, but she said she hasn't been able to get an appointment with state unemployment staff to get her plan approved.
And she's worried about how she'll pay for even 27.5 percent of health-insurance premiums. She and her husband both worked at Sparrows Point.
"It's going to be hard," Rich said.
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