Dundalk resident Troy W. Pritt, who worked at Sparrows Point for 15 years before losing his job in June, said he had prepared for what seemed an inevitable closure but still doesn't have the training funds to show for it.

Pritt, who is pursuing a bachelor's degree in business, said he was told he couldn't get help for the fall semester because he already had signed up for classes. So he dug into his savings for what wasn't covered by the last of RG Steel's education fund, and he set his eyes on the spring. But recently, he said, the state warned him that he wouldn't hear whether the funds would be approved until shortly before — or just as — the semester begins in late January.

What he finds particularly distressing is that the funds run out 156 weeks after a recipient's layoff. Delays are costly.

"As they're getting their act together, we're losing time," said Pritt, 42. "It's just been a slow, arduous process."

State officials say the federal benefits program is highly complex and not one-size-fits-all, which adds to the time involved. But Howie said the experience hasn't been what his team hoped for, and they're taking workers' frustrations seriously.

His agency recently added six workers to the Sparrows Point efforts and is hiring six more. He realizes the sale of the cold mill paired with his department's appeals to apply "could create a mad rush" of even more applicants, but he said they're prepared for it.

Only state workers can process paperwork associated with the federal benefits, but other institutions have been taking steps to ease bottlenecks. The Community College of Baltimore County put two academic advisers in the state's Eastpoint one-stop career center — where many of the laid-off workers go for assistance — to offer help navigating the college's options.

Baltimore County, meanwhile, sent two temporary workers to the career center to handle the "overwhelming" number of calls, said Edward Fangman, the county's chief of workforce development. The county also is in the midst of building an outpost within that center for classes and other aid aimed at the laid-off workers from Sparrows Point.

Gary Kleiner, who's managing that center-within-a-center, worked in human resources for 32 years at Sparrows Point before losing his job when longtime owner Bethlehem Steel went under. The company filed for bankruptcy in 2001 and its assets were purchased in 2003, the first of five Sparrows Point sales in less than a decade — an uncertain and stressful stretch for the workers.

Kleiner sees his staff's role as part job counselor, part grief counselor.

"We're trying to get these people to realize there's life after the steel plant," he said.

Mike Wight, 65, sat down at a computer in the Eastpoint center Friday to sign up for the trade benefits — his last chance to do it. He was laid off 26 weeks ago as of Saturday.

It took him a while to get the ball rolling, in part because of all the paperwork associated with replacing his health care benefits. But he didn't intend to let his chance slip by.

"I want to look into all my options," said Wight, who lives in Dundalk.

Helena Rich, a Woodlawn resident who worked four year at Sparrows Point, started her training program this month — and so did her husband, who worked at the plant for nearly 18 years.

Like Pritt, Rich was frustrated by delays. Her trade school starts courses every month, but she said September went by, then October, then November, and she was in danger of missing December until another state employee intervened in her case manager's absence.

Rich declared it "frustrating, but it was worth it." She was glad to hear the Eastpoint center is getting more staff.

"I would really rather be working than going to school, but it's affording me the opportunity to do something," said Rich, who is training to be a pharmacy technician. "The work is not there, so why not train?"

Howie, the state labor secretary, said he hopes to get more of Rich's former co-workers similarly connected. It's a huge need — the state has had nothing on the scale of the Sparrows Point closure in recent memory, he said.

"This isn't just a company that closed its doors," he added. "This was an institution."

For the workers, it went beyond that. Sparrows Point was a family. What makes the closure so devastating, Pritt said, is the loss not just of pay but also of that Point identity.

"You got 2,000 people that can't go home now," Pritt said. "This is where their grandparents worked, this is where their fathers worked, their aunts, their uncles, and now they can't go home anymore."



Training benefits

The deadline to sign up for federal training benefits — or else lose out — is near for many Sparrows Point workers. It's 26 weeks after layoff, which started en masse at the steel mill in June.

Before enrolling, workers must have already applied for unemployment insurance and registered with the state's Maryland Workforce Exchange job site, http://www.mwejobs.com. State officials suggest calling their Sparrows Point hot line starting Monday at 410-288-9050, ext. 408, or visiting a one-stop career center, which can be located at http://www.dllr.state.md.us.

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