Discussions are underway this week at the Illinois Statehouse about whether to extend unemployment benefits for laid-off steelworkers in the Metro East. A bill to lengthen the benefit period to a full-year instead of the current 26 weeks has been passed by a legislative committee.
The package would be welcome news for roughly 2,000 employees who have been out of work ever since U.S. Steel stopped production at its Granite City plant almost a year ago.
Doug Byrum is one of the workers hoping the extension is approved. The maintenance mechanic has been working at the steel mill for 17 years and it’s coming down to crunch time for his finances.
“Our insurance will actually be cut off at the end of the year because of our contractual agreement,” he told St. Louis Public Radio.
“I'll have to start paying for insurance, so then money goes even worse.”
Byrum, like many of his co-workers, is stretching every dollar so he can make mortgage and vehicle payments, while searching for another job.
“Now, my age is getting there to where, I guess that's why I'm not getting called,” said the frustrated 52-year old.
“There's just so many young kids out there nowadays trying to look for work too.”
Byrum’s situation is being repeated through members of the United Steelworkers locals at Granite City.
For Local 50 President Jason Chism, the struggle because especially clear recently during a conversation with a union member.
“We broke into tears talking about it,” Chism said.
“He was trying to do everything he could to try and keep his vehicles. He’s in the same situation, on the brink of losing his house. And that’s just one example of a lot of situations we are dealing with here at the mill.”
U.S. Steel made the decision to idle Granite City because of a downturn in the industry. The company and union say that has been caused by an influx of cheaper foreign steel into the U.S. market. They say it’s being brought in illegally through what is known as steel dumping.
Some recent international trade rulings have increased tariffs on the overseas-produced steel and that is having a positive impact, but only at a relatively minor level for the U.S. industry.
Foreign companies have also been trying to get around U.S.-imposed tariffs and duties. That has prompted the Department of Commerce to recently launch two more investigations into Chinese companies. They are accused of avoiding import fees by shipping steel through Vietnam, before it comes to the U.S.
Such an investigation and some legislative changes to help the industry better fight steel dumping have come too late for Granite City resident and blast furnace worker Bentley McIntyre, who has spent the past 12 years at the steel mill. That includes a previous shutdown that started in 2008.
“That was a shock to everybody, because there was no record of them ever shutting down at all,” he said.
“You know with everything and stuff that happened with them shutting down last year ... definitely scary.”
McIntyre has been more fortunate than many. He managed to land a job at Olin Corporation in East Alton, right around the time his unemployment benefits were about to expire.
“You're wanting to try and at least make what you're making unemployment-wise, when you're looking for something,” he told St. Louis Public Radio during an interview at his Metro East home.
“You can go get a job anywhere for lesser pay. But that's not the object of what you're trying to focus on when you're out trying to keep your home, keep your vehicles and maintain what you have.”
Even though he has a paycheck coming in, McIntyre would consider returning to U.S. Steel, if production resumes. Such a decision seems far off at this point.
McIntyre and Byrum have both heard rumblings that some production might restart next year. And Chism said there are indicators suggesting that could be the case, but it’s not known how many workers might be called back.
Amid all of the uncertainty, McIntyre is staying positive.
“Take it to the Lord. That's the best possible situation I can tell you about. That's what I’m using to keep sane.”
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