Growing work force could reach 1,000 by year's end


November 12, 1994|By Ross Hetrick | Ross Hetrick,Sun Staff Writer

Fueled by a slew of new contracts, the work force at Bethlehem Steel Corp.'s BethShip shipyard at Sparrows Point has soared from 200 to 874 in the last three months and could reach 1,000 by the end of the year, according to a company official.

"We're seeing improving world trade, and that should be a plus for us," said Gary L. Millenbruch, Bethelehem's executive vice president and chief financial officer. "That is helping us this quarter," he said.

Mr. Millenbruch also said seasonal work from cruise lines and an upturn in freight rates -- which has encouraged shipowners to repair ships -- has also helped.

"It's still a very competitive business, it's tough business, but it's one that certainly has improved this quarter and we contin

ue to work on our competitiveness and cost structure," he said.

Bethlehem's latest wave of business includes a $12 million contract with Maersk Line Ltd., a Danish steamship company, to refurbish two ships that will become part of the U.S. Ready Reserve fleet of cargo ships used for military operations.

The first ship, the MS Adrian Maersk, is scheduled to arrive Tuesday and is expected to be completed by Feb. 6. The second, the MS Albert Maersk, is due Dec. 15 and should be completed by March 6.

The shipyard, which is adjacent to the company's steel mill, also has contracts to do repair work on 11 ships stretching from mid-October to the end of December.

Even with the recent recalls, 565 shipyard workers remain on layoff, according to Bethlehem spokesman G. Ted Baldwin.

While workers back on the job are glad to be back on the payroll, the cycle of layoffs and recalls has extracted a toll.

"In the last five years, it's been in and out. In and out," said Vernon M. Banks, 39, a 20-year veteran of the yard who was called back in August after being laid off for more than a month.

"You may work two to three months, you may work two to three weeks," he said. "It's definitely been a financial strain on myself and probably the rest of the workers down here."

Garland Colbert, 42, a father of three, said he has worked a total of about four months since the beginning of the year and has supplemented his income with work as a carpenter and welder. And after 21 years at the yard, he has mixed feelings about returning.

"Basically you're in and you're out," he said. "You're going to be faced eventually probably with a decision, either [staying] or going to find something better."

Yet other workers say the ample overtime makes up for the sporadic work.

"When I work, I work six or seven days and I get a lot of overtime," said Frank L. Vain, a 60-year-old painter and sandblaster with 26 years at the yard.

With his high seniority, he is only off for a few weeks at a time and with overtime -- which increases his normal $13 an hour by 50 to 100 percent -- he earns two weeks pay in one.

"I'm living good," he said.

BethShip, which employed around 5,000 as recently as the mid-1970s, switched to repair work in 1989 as commercial and military orders for new ships disappeared and other Baltimore shipyards closed up. Its recent high point was 1,260 workers in January 1993 when the yard was working on a $60 million contract to build tunnel sections for the Boston Harbor Tunnel.

Employment hit a low in early August when only 200 workers were left, and the BethShip division contributed to a $9 million loss in the third quarter in the company's steel related operations.

The latest string of contracts may be supplemented by a tentative $1.7 million order to build a container barge for Hale Intermodal Transport Co., a Baltimore trucking and barging firm.

Bethlehem has signed a letter of intent with Hale Intermodal, but final details still have to be worked out, according to Edwin F. Hale Sr., chairman of Hale Intermodal.

Bethlehem also has participated with eight other companies in an 18-month study to develop a system to build whole sections of a tanker on land and then assemble them in a dry dock. The study is being funded by a $2.25 million grant from the U.S. Maritime Administration and a matching amount in cash and in-kind contributions from the nine companies.

Bethlehem hopes it could use the system to win contracts from tanker owners, who are required by federal law to convert their single-hull ships to double-hull vessels between 1995 and 2015.

"We could use [the plans] in possible conversions of existing single-hull tankers to double-hull tankers," said Robert A. Fiorelli, manager of business development and sales at BethShip. "Replacement tonnage must be built, eventually," he said.

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