A Forced Commute

January 17, 1995|By Ross Hetrick | Ross Hetrick,Sun Staff Writer

David C. Fatula's roots in the mountains of Western Pennsylvania run deep and strong.

A native of Johnstown, Pa., Mr. Fatula grew up in the small industrial town and went to work for its major employer, Bethlehem Steel Corp. With his own hands, he built a comfortable home for himself, his wife and two children. About a year ago, he was elected mayor of the small borough of Brownstown, which has a population of 1,000.

Now those roots are being stretched to their limit. Mr. Fatula has been forced into a nomadic life, working in Baltimore County at Bethlehem's Sparrows Point steel mill and then making the 195-mile trip home once or twice a week to attend to his duties as mayor and see his wife and two young children.

"The stress on them has been tremendous," Mr. Fatula said of his family. Mr. Fatula, 42, is one of 120 laid-off Johnstown workers uprooted six months ago and moved to Sparrows Point to replace retiring workers at the 2,500-acre plant, where the average steelworker age is 55. They were joined by 30 other furloughed workers from Bethlehem's plant in Steelton, Pa.

Like most of the others, Mr. Fatula, who was on layoff status in Johnstown, felt he had little choice but to accept the transfer.

If he had refused to go, he not only would have lost the right to collect an early pension but also would have had to wait another 20 years for retirement benefits to begin. But by taking the job, he's left with the choice of either living apart from his family or undertaking the financial and emotional strain of moving them.

The dilemma that these workers face is the result of a complex meshing of contract and pension provisions that makes it cheaper for Bethlehem to transfer workers from Pennsylvania than to rehire them in the Baltimore area. It leaves affected workers in their 40s and 50s with the choice of either going to Sparrows Point or forgoing the chance to collect their pensions before they are 62.

Bethlehem's action has drawn the opposition of the United Steelworkers of America, the union representing the workers. The USWA argues that instead of transferring the Johnstown workers -- many against their wishes -- former Bethlehem workers in the Baltimore area should have been hired first before asking for volunteers from other plants.

"That would have been in everybody's interest," said Bill Nugent, the assistant to the USWA district director for Maryland. "The morale of the people coming from Johnstown is not good. You can understand that," he said.

The union is talking to the company about the matter, although a formal grievance has not been filed, he said.

Bethlehem spokesman G. Ted Baldwin declined to discuss the issue in detail, saying only that the company "is following the provisions of the agreement with the USWA."

The Pennsylvania workers' situation, ironically, arises from boom times in the steel industry. After decades of traumatic industrywide cutbacks that saw Sparrows Point employment shrink from 30,000 in the 1950s to its present 5,400, the company is scrambling to meet increased demand and plug holes in its aging work force, which is retiring at a steady rate of 25 to 50 a month.

For the first time in 15 years, Sparrows Point in November asked the state employment service to put out the word that it was looking for new hires.

The response was overwhelming. About 4,500 applications for the jobs -- which pay between $11.74 and $17 an hour and include extensive benefits -- flooded into the state-run Eastpoint Job Service.

Out of that number, just 90 were hired, and all but one or two of them were former Bethlehem employees, according to Mr. Baldwin.

"We expect to be hiring throughout the year, and the number of people will be determined mainly by our attrition levels," said Mr. Baldwin.

Making such a wide solicitation for applications may have raised hopes too high, Mr. Nugent said.

"Some expectations for the community were raised that really shouldn't have been," he said.

But more former Bethlehem workers in the area -- which number about 500 -- may have been hired if the company had not transferred the workers from the closed Johnstown bar, rod and wire mill, Mr. Nugent said.

To his knowledge, only two of the workers from Johnstown came voluntarily. "I'm relatively certain that the balance of those that have come so far did not want to come," he said.

Indeed, many of the workers at Johnstown would have preferred to remain on layoff rather than get a new job at Sparrows Point. That's because workers with 20 years of service can collect a pension two years after being laid off if their age and years of service add up to 65. The company also has to pay affected workers an additional $400 a month until they are 62 if their plant had been closed, as in Johnstown.

But if the company offers a worker a job before the two years pass, he has to accept it or the pension is postponed to the age of 62. Normally a worker can retire after 30 years of service, no matter what his age.

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