Tough Times

Published 10:14 pm Saturday, November 29, 2008

She calls herself a single, hardworking mom who loves sports and loves to sing.

So when Susan Taylor of Ironton found out after eight months on the job at AK Steel she was facing a layoff, her first thought was automatic.

It was about her six children. This wasn’t the first union job Taylor has worked so she knew the drill. Anyone coming on board only in March wouldn’t be vested.

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That meant her health insurance would run out at the end of the month.

“I have children in school and my first concern was for my kids,” she said last week when she stopped into the Steelworkers Union Hall in Ashland, Ky., for a minute. “I have a son who had an injury playing football. I wasn’t concerned for myself, but for my kids. I’ve worked jobs when I have had to struggle.”

Belt-tightening is something Taylor, a utility tech in the masonry department, has done before and done well.

“I’ve been on that side of the board before,” she said. “The Good Lord doesn’t take you places without His grace to get you places.”

A week after the election of Barack Obama, who campaigned partly on his ability to effect a change in the economic turmoil rocking the nation, AK Steel announced layoffs that continue to stun the Tri-State.

Starting last week the Ashland Works’ blast furnace, casting and coating operations were idled leaving a skeleton crew in the mill.

A week before Thanksgiving 545 steelworkers were out on the street. A couple of days ago 100 more got their notices. Add to that approximately 300 independent contractors who work in the plant and the picture becomes clear.

“You are talking about over 1,000 before it is over,” Mike Hewlett, Steelworkers Local 1865 president, said.

The reason for the shutdown flashes across the national nightly news shows with the constancy of the North Star. It’s the financial miasma the Detroit automakers find themselves lost in as the CEOs have rushed to Washington begging for help.

“We’re tied into the automobile factories,” Hewlett said in a recent interview with The Tribune. “For every auto worker job there are five or six attached to it across the nation. They should be able to give a bailout. They should probably get the autoworkers and the big CEOs and get them all together and say, ‘Gentlemen, figure out a plan to revamp the auto industry.’ That way it would be a solid plan.”

That possibility, however, was dampened when the Detroit leaders went before Congress, Hewlett contends.

“The CEOs showed up in private jets. That was an ego trip,” the union chief said. “When you put this many people on the street, you double and triple that by the family. You are getting 1,500, 2,000 not in good buying power.”

Yet as quickly as the layoffs were announced, there was the proverbial silver lining with management at AK Steel predicting the workers will get called back by the first of the year.

“They are just talking about the middle of January at this time,” Hewlett said. “It will be a process to get them back. They’ll first bring back the maintenance to start checking over the equipment and the operations people will be back behind them.”

Hewlett said that could take between a week or two, leaving the workers with the reality of at least 30 days to get through with bills, mortgage and car payments, let alone Christmas to pay for.

It’s a reality Mark Lynch of Ironton has faced down before. In fact, he knows the scenario at its worst when a plant is padlocked and the key thrown away.

Lynch, a native of Virginia, worked electronics for Motorola in Harvard, Ill., when the plant went belly up.

“Things are a little different here,” Lynch, who is also the local’s treasurer, said. “We knew (in Illinois) there was no job to go back to. They were shutting down doctors’ offices. Gas stations were closing. This is some hope we will be back. The company is very adamant. We will go back to work.”

Joe Urwin of Franklin Furnace has six years with the mill yet admits when the rumors of a layoff started floating about he got nervous.

His wife, Melanie, is expecting their second child in February, a daughter the couple plans to name Maura.

After Melanie had their son, Michael, three years ago, she went part-time in her job as a surgical tech with an ophthalmology clinic in Ashland. That changed abruptly last week.

“Hopefully we will be back in January. We will get through. It is kind of hard,” Urwin said. “My pregnant wife going back to work full time. That’s kind of hard. She was really stressed. We’re taking it one day at a time.”

Right now between sub pay, which AK Steel is contracted to pay, and state unemployment benefits, the steelworkers will get about 60 percent of their regular straight-time pay, Hewlett said.

That will be at least $250 a week, Lynch said.

But when this is the first time for some, nerves can rule.

“They’re scared to death,” Lynch said. “I can relate to that. I have been in their shoes. We’ve had people calling in here wanting to know about their COBRA (temporary health insurance plan.)”

Through quick negotiations with AK Steel, all laid off workers will have health benefits, including Susan Taylor and 118 like her who were not vested.

The company has extended their benefits along with those with more time in.

It’s his opinion that was done because the company didn’t want to lose those workers, Lynch said.

With the health issue resolved, Taylor is seeing a little light at the end of the tunnel. But her thoughts and actions still revolved around those precious six — her children.

“I don’t let them see me afraid so they’re not afraid,” she said. “I put on a great front. I never let them see me sweat.”