Deadline looms for Sparrows Point workers to seek help

Mike Wight, who worked at the Sparrows Point steel mill for 47 years, shows Varvara Kymbriti paperwork as he enrolls in the Maryland Workforce Exchange program at the steelworker assistance center at Eastpoint.
Mike Wight, who worked at the Sparrows Point steel mill for 47 years, shows Varvara Kymbriti paperwork as he enrolls in the Maryland Workforce Exchange program at the steelworker assistance center at Eastpoint. (Kim Hairston, Baltimore Sun)

The effort to connect former Sparrows Point workers with training for new careers gained more urgency last week as the final hopes of the steel mill reopening were dashed — and as the deadline to apply for the help or forever lose it fast approaches for hundreds.

More than 1,600 of the people laid off from the Baltimore County plant are eligible for federal "trade adjustment" benefits, which cover retraining costs and come with a stipend equal to unemployment benefits once those run out. Only half have enrolled.

State officials figure that some haven't applied because they've retired, but fear many of the rest either are unaware of the help — despite outreach efforts — or have been holding off in the hope that the mill would be restarted.

Now state workers are calling everyone who hasn't already missed their chance to urge them to act fast. The deadline is 26 weeks after the date of layoff, and some 100 or so residents only have until this week. Others will pass the cutoff date soon after.

"Understand, the clock is definitely ticking here," said Leonard J. Howie III, Maryland's labor secretary.

The 125-year-old Sparrows Point plant, which supplied steel for the Golden Gate Bridge, Maryland's Bay Bridge and hundreds of World War II ships, was closed this summer after owner RG Steel went bankrupt. A liquidation company and a redevelopment firm bought the property at auction, but both companies vowed then to look for an operator to restart some or all of the plant.

A second auction was set for January, with a Dec. 21 deadline for bids. It never got to that point.

Hilco Trading, the liquidator, sold the plant's newest and most valuable asset to North Carolina-based steelmaker Nucor, which told a trade publication that it would use the Sparrows Point cold mill for spare parts in its own mills. Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz said Thursday that Sparrows Point's owners intend to raze the plant.

Joe Rosel, president of United Steelworkers Local 9477 in Sparrows Point, couldn't believe the steel mill's long history would end this way. He said the union was working with companies interested in operating the plant.

Hilco's chief marketing officer said Thursday that the company tried to sell Sparrows Point to someone who wanted to run it.

Maryland officials also attempted to find an operator and reached out to likely prospects, said Dominick E. Murray, deputy secretary of the state Department of Business and Economic Development. The head of the agency called Jindal Steel in India. Gov. Martin O'Malley called Brazilian steelmaker CSN — long thought to be interested in the plant — to make a personal appeal, Murray said.

No luck. Of CSN, Murray said: "They were not expressive."

No steelmakers showed up to bid on Sparrows Point at the August bankruptcy auction. At the time, workers and some steel analysts attributed it to the tight timeline — RG Steel had just filed for bankruptcy in late May. But to others, the absence suggested that only liquidators and redevelopers saw value in the more than 3,000-acre property that had produced so much steel and employed so many.

At its height, tens of thousands of people labored on the Point. At the end, the plant was down to about 2,000 workers. But even then, the plant was the economic engine of southeastern Baltimore County.

Officials with the state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation said they want to ensure that all those eligible for training funds from the Trade Adjustment Assistance Program get them. Workers who already have enrolled are taking or soon will take classes to bridge the way to other types of manufacturing, as well as bigger career shifts such as to health care, state officials said.

The big unknown is whether retraining will help workers land jobs with pay and benefits comparable to Sparrows Point. Generations of employees there could afford to buy a home, raise a family and send the kids to college — assuming the kids didn't intend to go straight from high school to the Point themselves. (Many did.)

But the more immediate challenge is getting workers approved for the training funds.

Rosel, the local union leader, says he's heard "a lot of complaints" from members about long wait times and conflicting information.

"I don't want to say that people aren't trying," he said of state workers responsible for processing the applications and education plans, "but … I think they're overwhelmed."

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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