A year after bankruptcy, lives unsettled still

Despair — and hope — run deep among Sparrows Point's former workers

June 08, 2013|By Jamie Smith Hopkins, The Baltimore Sun

The closing of the steel mill at Sparrows Point overwhelmed Bob Jennings. Too young to retire at 59, he faced a gloomy job market for local manufacturing workers and a bureaucracy that couldn't get him timely training help. He felt like a failure.

No, no, his wife said, "the system is the failure," but she couldn't convince him. On a cold Saturday morning, he wrote her a short note of apology, walked to their shed and shot himself.

Troy Pritt, 44, also worked at the Baltimore County mill. When he was laid off, he saw it as a rare opportunity to hit the restart button on his life and earn a bachelor's degree with federal retraining aid. He loves his business courses and is hopeful about the future.

Few from the mill's workforce of about 2,100 are enrolled in four-year institutions. But Jennings' death is the only known suicide, and his family and former colleagues are working to keep it that way.

Elements of both men's experiences, the despair and the hope, ripple through the tight-knit community of steelworkers. Many are still trying to find their way in the new life abruptly forced on them last June.

"It's too soon to really see the full impacts," says Michael Lewis, financial administrator of the United Steelworkers local at Sparrows Point, who is unwinding the union and trying to help struggling workers. "The impact so far has been devastating, but it's not over yet. It's just not over yet."

In the year since mill owner RG Steel collapsed into bankruptcy — after decades of downsizing by previous owners — some of its former employees found good jobs nearby. Others moved to jobs in distant states, separating themselves from a deep-rooted network of relatives and friends.

Some happily retired. Others did so in defeat.

Some are in trade schools and community colleges, holding their breath that they're reinventing themselves enough for new jobs.

Some work for far less than they made before.

Some are still looking for work. They look and look and look.

Chapter one: 'That was his life'

Bob and Debby Jennings both worked at Sparrows Point — she for a little over two years in the 1970s, just before and after they were married, and he for more than 30. She still remembers the old-time houses and shops, "like out of a Norman Rockwell painting," in the remains of the company town that then-owner Bethlehem Steel was replacing with a new blast furnace. Everywhere she saw red dust, asbestos, hulking machinery.

It almost was like stepping onto another planet, says Debby Jennings, 60. "It was a fascinating place to work."

Jeanne Jennings, one of their two daughters, never saw beyond the parking lot. Her father always told her it was too dangerous. She grew up hearing "horrific stories about people who died at the plant."

"I would be afraid as a child that he would die at work," she recalls. "I really didn't want him to work there because I was afraid it was going to kill him. And eventually it did."

Not, as she'd feared, because he was working there. But because he wasn't.

That is what might be counterintuitive about Sparrows Point and its hard, hot, hazardous jobs: Many of the people who toiled there loved it — not only for the middle-class pay and excellent benefits, but for the camaraderie and sense of purpose.

"The Point" produced steel for the Golden Gate Bridge and hundreds of World War II ships. For some, it employed their parents, grandparents, even great-grandparents, and they proudly carried on that tradition.

"That was his life, what he did," Jeanne Jennings says.

After he was laid off, Bob Jennings drove north on Interstate 83 to the home he'd built nine years ago in York County, just over the Pennsylvania line, and told his wife it would probably be all right. Hadn't new owners always stepped in when Sparrows Point's future seemed uncertain? Hadn't the mill survived one bankruptcy already, plus four sales in the past decade?

Then the August auction came. The more than 3,000-acre facility sold for $72.5 million — less than one-tenth of its sale price four years earlier — to a redevelopment firm and a liquidation company.

The companies said they wanted to resell to an operator. The Steelworkers local vowed to search for one.

Bob Jennings held onto hope but also tried to get into training for another job.

He'd applied for opening after opening — particularly in welding, which he did at Sparrows Point for years — but received no offers that would pay the bills. He worried that he was being counted out for good welding jobs because he'd shifted to crane inspection at the mill.

A welding course, he thought, might help. He was eligible for federal retraining aid, like others from Sparrows Point.

He struggled for about two months through a required academic skills test before passing on Oct. 26, his wife says. Then he waited for Pennsylvania officials to process his application and approve his funding.

Halloween went by. Thanksgiving. Christmas.

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