"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.