Long, uncertain future ahead for younger Sparrows Point workers

Steelworkers' jobs were hard but paid well — much better than most of the alternatives

  • Forrest Martin -- at home with his wife, Lacey, and daughters Ophelia, left, and Alice -- worked as a crane operator at Sparrows Point.
Forrest Martin -- at home with his wife, Lacey, and daughters… (Baltimore Sun photo by Gene…)
September 02, 2012|By Jamie Smith Hopkins, The Baltimore Sun

Forrest Martin is looking at the same help-wanted listings as all the other Sparrows Point workers, the jobs with wages of $10 an hour, $13, $15. The jobs that could mean a pay cut of half — or more — from his steel mill days.

But Martin, 31, isn't exactly in the same boat as everybody else.

Half of the mill's workers started at Sparrows Point before he was born. Hundreds of its laid-off workers are eligible, if not able, to retire. Martin is part of a smaller group — about 280 of the 1,700 hourly employees — who are in their 20s or 30s and have most of their working lives ahead of them.

It's debatable which group has it worse as a result of the mill's idling — a closure that is in danger of turning permanent. The older workers fear age discrimination as they search for another job. Martin and others his age face the grim possibility of decades of making do with less.

He doesn't mince words: "We're scared to death."

Sparrows Point's closing is a double-whammy for Josh and Angela Polanowski, also in their 30s: They both worked there. Now they and their two children are living on unemployment benefits.

And Jeff Ervin Jr., 31, laid off from the mill along with his father, two brothers and five cousins, is the sole breadwinner for his family of four. He'd like to get training for a new career, but he said his priority is finding work. And soon.

"I can't lose my house and everything else, so I have to get a job," he said.

It is a situation that has been repeated over and over in the course of these workers' lives. Theirs is a generation of contraction in American manufacturing.

Maryland has 89,000 fewer manufacturing jobs than it did in 1990, a 44 percent drop. The problem is particularly pressing for neighborhoods — like many in Baltimore and eastern Baltimore County — where manufacturing offered the principal path to the middle class.

Howard Wial, a nonresident senior fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institution, said the sector saw a big wave of job losses nationwide in the 1980s and an even bigger one during the last decade. Offshoring to low-wage countries is a key part of the story.

"Only in the last couple of years has that started to turn around, and the turnaround has been pretty small compared to the losses," said Wial, also director of the Center for Urban Economic Development at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

It's not too late for the country to make manufacturing a priority and rebuild its industrial base, he said. But in the meantime, the odds are stacked against workers in that sector whose jobs disappear.

"Manufacturing workers who get laid off take a large hit to their pay," Wial said. "And it takes them a long time, if ever, to recover their previous pay and benefits."

Before she landed a job at Sparrows Point eight years ago, Angela Polanowski was a manager at a McDonald's, making about $7.50 an hour. Her husband, Josh, who started at the mill the same year, had earned $12.50 an hour as a machinist.

Ervin had previously worked mostly "odds and ends" jobs, and Martin had made $16 per hour doing home improvement work before being hired at Sparrows Point four years ago.

The mill's last new hires in 2008 started at a minimum of $16.39 an hour with incentives that could push that base wage up to nearly $20. Beyond that, there were quarterly profit-sharing checks under former owners. And overtime could add a lot.

When business was better, Martin often worked 56-hour weeks — sometimes nearly 70. He earned more than $60,000 one year. And he loved the work.

But his hours as a crane operator were so long and uncertain that he and his wife, Lacey, couldn't set the date for their younger daughter's first birthday party until the week before. And his older daughter once declared (at age 2) that he didn't live at home.

"Where do I live?" he asked, amused.

"At work," said Ophelia Martin, now 4.

Thinking of this the other day, he asked her, "Do I live at home now?"

"Yeah," she replied.

The last few months certainly have been a change. Martin's final day at the plant was June 15, when he arrived and almost immediately was told he might as well go home — there was nothing left to be done at the plant's hot mill. Owner RG Steel was idling the entire complex, having workers finish orders without taking more.

RG Steel, the fifth owner of the Baltimore County mill in the past decade, created a New York investment holding company to buy Sparrows Point and other assets in March 2011. Now it's in bankruptcy. The company was done in by problems that included rising prices for raw materials — which account for about 85 percent of a mill's costs — and falling prices for steel.

Martin had been optimistic that Sparrows Point would be sold to another steelmaker and everyone would get back to work. But no steelmaker placed a bid at the Aug. 7 auction.

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