After Sparrows Point

Forrest Martin -- at home with his wife, Lacey, and daughters Ophelia, left, and Alice -- worked as a crane operator at Sparrows Point. (Baltimore Sun photo by Gene Sweeney Jr. / August 16, 2012)

Forrest Martin is looking at the same help-wanted listings as all the other Sparrows Point workers, the jobs with wages of $10 an hour, $13, $15. The jobs that could mean a pay cut of half — or more — from his steel mill days.

But Martin, 31, isn't exactly in the same boat as everybody else.

Half of the mill's workers started at Sparrows Point before he was born. Hundreds of its laid-off workers are eligible, if not able, to retire. Martin is part of a smaller group — about 280 of the 1,700 hourly employees — who are in their 20s or 30s and have most of their working lives ahead of them.

It's debatable which group has it worse as a result of the mill's idling — a closure that is in danger of turning permanent. The older workers fear age discrimination as they search for another job. Martin and others his age face the grim possibility of decades of making do with less.

He doesn't mince words: "We're scared to death."

Sparrows Point's closing is a double-whammy for Josh and Angela Polanowski, also in their 30s: They both worked there. Now they and their two children are living on unemployment benefits.

And Jeff Ervin Jr., 31, laid off from the mill along with his father, two brothers and five cousins, is the sole breadwinner for his family of four. He'd like to get training for a new career, but he said his priority is finding work. And soon.

"I can't lose my house and everything else, so I have to get a job," he said.

It is a situation that has been repeated over and over in the course of these workers' lives. Theirs is a generation of contraction in American manufacturing.

Maryland has 89,000 fewer manufacturing jobs than it did in 1990, a 44 percent drop. The problem is particularly pressing for neighborhoods — like many in Baltimore and eastern Baltimore County — where manufacturing offered the principal path to the middle class.

Howard Wial, a nonresident senior fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institution, said the sector saw a big wave of job losses nationwide in the 1980s and an even bigger one during the last decade. Offshoring to low-wage countries is a key part of the story.

"Only in the last couple of years has that started to turn around, and the turnaround has been pretty small compared to the losses," said Wial, also director of the Center for Urban Economic Development at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

It's not too late for the country to make manufacturing a priority and rebuild its industrial base, he said. But in the meantime, the odds are stacked against workers in that sector whose jobs disappear.

"Manufacturing workers who get laid off take a large hit to their pay," Wial said. "And it takes them a long time, if ever, to recover their previous pay and benefits."

Before she landed a job at Sparrows Point eight years ago, Angela Polanowski was a manager at a McDonald's, making about $7.50 an hour. Her husband, Josh, who started at the mill the same year, had earned $12.50 an hour as a machinist.

Ervin had previously worked mostly "odds and ends" jobs, and Martin had made $16 per hour doing home improvement work before being hired at Sparrows Point four years ago.

The mill's last new hires in 2008 started at a minimum of $16.39 an hour with incentives that could push that base wage up to nearly $20. Beyond that, there were quarterly profit-sharing checks under former owners. And overtime could add a lot.

When business was better, Martin often worked 56-hour weeks — sometimes nearly 70. He earned more than $60,000 one year. And he loved the work.

But his hours as a crane operator were so long and uncertain that he and his wife, Lacey, couldn't set the date for their younger daughter's first birthday party until the week before. And his older daughter once declared (at age 2) that he didn't live at home.

"Where do I live?" he asked, amused.

"At work," said Ophelia Martin, now 4.

Thinking of this the other day, he asked her, "Do I live at home now?"

"Yeah," she replied.

The last few months certainly have been a change. Martin's final day at the plant was June 15, when he arrived and almost immediately was told he might as well go home — there was nothing left to be done at the plant's hot mill. Owner RG Steel was idling the entire complex, having workers finish orders without taking more.

RG Steel, the fifth owner of the Baltimore County mill in the past decade, created a New York investment holding company to buy Sparrows Point and other assets in March 2011. Now it's in bankruptcy. The company was done in by problems that included rising prices for raw materials — which account for about 85 percent of a mill's costs — and falling prices for steel.

Martin had been optimistic that Sparrows Point would be sold to another steelmaker and everyone would get back to work. But no steelmaker placed a bid at the Aug. 7 auction.

Workers awoke the next morning, those who slept at all, to the news that the mill had been sold for $72 million to a company that liquidates closed plants. (It was later disclosed that the winning bidder was a redevelopment firm working with the liquidator, which didn't seem any less dire.) The winning bid was less than a tenth of what Sparrows Point had sold for in 2008.

"I was in tears," Martin said. "How could this have happened?"

Now the supplemental unemployment pay from RG Steel is gone. Health benefits ran out Aug. 31. What hope employees have left is focused on the buyers' stated intention to find an operator to restart part or all of the mill, and local union leaders' belief that the key is more time. The auction was held just 10 weeks after RG Steel filed for bankruptcy protection.

Martin and his wife say they are fortunate, relatively speaking. Lacey Martin left her job at the Johns Hopkins Health System in 2010 to stay home with their two daughters but quickly returned after her husband's hours were cut. So they have her salary, and they can switch to her health insurance.

They had moved to his grandparents' former home in 2010 to cut expenses. The one-story house built in the 1930s, now owned by Martin's father, is small and aging, and the couple had hoped to buy a place of their own. They had wanted to be settled before Ophelia starts school next year. Now there's no point in looking, but homelessness at least is off the table.

Even so, the layoff is a wrenching, stressful hardship: less money, more expensive insurance, uncertainty about the near-future. What weighs on them are the much-lower-paying alternatives to Sparrows Point.

Martin, sitting on his couch with photos of happier times on the wall behind him, said he can't seem to shut his mind off at night to get some rest.

"That's the thing about anxiety," said Lacey, 30. "You're always tired, but you can never sleep."

"When I started looking at jobs, I was like, $10 [an hour] for a forklift operator? Really?" Martin said.

"You have to adjust your expectations," Lacey said. "That's what we've been living with the last year, adjusted expectations."

Lower wages aren't the only problem. A new study by the Brookings Institution found that unemployed workers with a high school education or less are locked out of three-quarters of Baltimore-area job openings.

Martin, Ervin and the Polanowskis, like many at Sparrows Point, have high school educations plus largely on-the-job training, and are trying to figure out how to get more education while also paying the bills.

would cover education costs

But there's bad news for those who need to find another job immediately — which is a lot of people, Josh Polanowski says. You generally can't qualify for the training aid after going back to work, according to the state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation.

Another benefit of the program is a stipend to cover

Scott Wallace, manager of the state labor department's dislocation services unit, noted that some training programs can be finished quickly. Truck driving, for instance. He urged workers to talk to his agency to help sort through the options.

"Everybody's situation is different," he said.

Josh Polanowski is hoping to land a job — he's pursuing a promising one — so his wife can go back to school to learn heating and air-conditioning installation and repair. They're looking for stability, and the profession seems to offer that possibility.

"That field is always going to be there," said Polanowski, 31. "You can ship steel from overseas, but very few air-conditioning people are going to come from over there to install air conditioning in a house. It's more of a certain career."

Martin has deeply mixed feelings about what to do. He would like to get his job back — not just for the pay but for the satisfaction of being part of an operation that helped build huge projects such as the Golden Gate Bridge, and for the camaraderie of a workforce he calls his second family. But he doesn't want to go through further cycles of layoffs and loss. If he finds another job — a good, stable job — he thinks he'd stick with it even if Sparrows Point were to land a new operator.

But if that new owner came in with plans to make big capital improvements, that would be a sign of true change — a signal that the younger workers could stick around for the long haul.

"I don't want to be in the same boat again in two years," Martin said.

jhopkins@baltsun.com

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