Bethlehem workers go overtime

June 07, 1994|By Ross Hetrick | Ross Hetrick,Sun Staff Writer

Working at full capacity to feed an economy hungry for steel, Bethlehem Steel's Sparrows Point mill is ratcheting up the number of overtime hours for workers and is taking the first tentative steps toward creating new jobs.

But the hiring so far has been extremely limited -- only nine new workers have been hired this year -- as the company opts to increase overtime payments to a work force that is eager to comply.

Yet, there are some hopeful signs.

Just yesterday, Bethlehem issued a notice to workers that it will be hiring 75 steelworkers' children, all over 18, for summer jobs -- something that hasn't been done in about 15 years, according to Sandra A. Wright, treasurer of Local 2610 of the United Steelworkers of America.

And the nine new machinists the company hired last month nearly equals the company's new hires for all of last year.

"Long term, there is no question we are going to have to hire," said Duane R. Dunham, president of Bethlehem's Sparrows Point Division.

But the total work force will continue to decline as steelworkers, who on average are 49 years old and have 26 years of service, retire at a rate of 3 percent to 4 percent of the work force a year. Since 1980, the number of workers at the mill has dropped from 17,000 to 5,300.

Overtime at the 2,000-acre plant in Baltimore County now accounts for about 17 percent of the hours worked there, according to company officials -- up from 14 percent from last year.

If all the overtime was converted into full-time jobs, about 900 jobs would be created. And this is what the leadership of the United Steelworkers of America, the union representing workers at the plant, wants.

"We would like to eliminate all overtime," said David Wilson, director of Steelworkers' District 8, the union's top official in Maryland. "We're constantly badgering the company to hire more people."

But the union also has to contend with its own members, who have come to count on the extra overtime payments, which bring in 1 1/2 times their regular wages of about $14 an hour.

"Members are not complaining about overtime," Mr. Wilson said. In fact, he cites one case in which an employee who had worked for 24 hours straight wanted to file a union grievance because his supervisor wouldn't let him continue working his regular shift. The grievance wasn't pursued, Mr. Wilson said.

The overtime is voluntary, except in cases of emergency, and there is no shortage of volunteers, Mr. Wilson said.

One reason for the company's reluctance to hire new workers is a six-year no-layoff agreement negotiated between the union and the company last summer.

"Our concern is we are going to hit a down cycle," said Clifford W. Ishmael, manager of human resources at Sparrows Point. To absorb such a dip, there should be a "buffer" of "manageable" overtime, he said.

One 54-year-old electrician welcomes the extra overtime, saying it doubles his $40,000 wages.

"My overtime means a lot to me," said the father of four, who declined to give his name. "When I didn't have overtime, I went out and sold pizza pies."

The sole breadwinner in the family, he says he needs the money to support his wife and children, an elderly mother, a brother and a sister. "That's what you have to do if you want to help other people."

Most weeks he works 60 hours, and about every three months he puts in 80-hour weeks. On rare occasions, he works 100-hour weeks.

Steve A. Suprik, 43, a millwright at the plant, averages about 12 hours a week in overtime. "As long as they don't force it, I don't see where it hurts anything," he said.

But he says he would like to see more people hired. "I think that is what they should do," Mr. Suprik said. "I don't see how they are going to keep running another 10 years."

William M. Thompson, 42, a worker who sprays a cement mixture into rail cars that carry molten metal, says he works a 16-hour day once every other week. "Sometimes you get sleepy," he said. "We're used to it."

Despite the tired workers, both the union and the company say there is no statistical relation between accidents and overtime. In fact, Mr. Wilson said the hiring of inexperienced workers would actually increase accidents, according to safety statistics.

Bethlehem officials say they try to restrict employees from working more than 16 hours straight. A 24-hour stretch is "very rare," says company spokesman G. Ted Baldwin.

Jo-Ann Mayer Orlinsky, the administrator of the Maryland Occupational Safety and Health agency, said there are no state safety regulations limiting the number of hours a factory employee can work.

Further, the agency has not received complaints about excessive overtime. "I have not seen it as an issue," she said.

Along with pushing up overtime, the increased demand for steel is spurring Bethlehem, usually a staunch opponent of foreign steelmakers' trade practices, to import steel slabs to keep its finishing mills running at capacity.

Since late last year, Sparrows Point has imported 300,000 tons of slabs so that it could ship the same amount of steel to Bethlehem's steel mill in Burns Harbor, Ind.

The Indiana mill needs to stockpile the raw steel to tide it over while one of its blast furnaces is shut down for three months this summer for relining.

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