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Sparrows Point steelworkers await their fate — again

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Rodney Donald represents the third generation of his family to work at the Sparrows Point steel mill, and he's hoping this one won't be the last.

A mechanic in central maintenance, Donald learned last week that he's among workers in the first wave of layoffs at the financially troubled mill, which is gradually shutting down operations. He said he's been told he could be laid off for at least 10 weeks — although it could be much longer if a new buyer doesn't appear.

He's in a tougher spot than his older colleagues who are near retirement. Donald has invested more than 16 years at Sparrows Point, but at age 40 he's too young to retire.

"I'm caught in the middle there," he said. "I want to stay."

When the mill's owner, RG Steel LLC, filed for bankruptcy protection last month, it threw the lives of a couple of thousand Sparrows Point workers into upheaval. The company is under court order to sell the Baltimore County mill and other assets by late July.

Some workers say they are confident a new owner will take over what they consider an undervalued property.

Meanwhile, workers say their lives are "on idle" — much as the blast furnace was idled last week.

Of course, workers in many fields today are dealing with uncertainty. But Sparrows Point employees have had more than their fair share. They have no guarantee that a buyer will be found. And even if one does emerge, it would be the sixth owner in the past 10 years.

At this point, information is scarce and rumors are flying.

"Today, we were bought and sold six times at lunch," Donald joked during an interview.

For decades, workers flocked to the Sparrows Point mill for job security. A former owner, Bethlehem Steel, even ran its own Sparrows Point company town, along with a school and police and fire departments.

"It was so big, you could be anything you wanted to be and still be a steelworker," said Peter Selhorst, 66, who joined Bethlehem in 1972 as a laborer in the cold sheet mill.

"After I got hired, I went to buy a car. If they heard you worked at Bethlehem Steel … they rolled out the red carpet," he said. "You had a good job and it was for life."

Selhorst left in 2006 to run the Red Canoe bookstore-cafe in Lauraville with his wife, Nicole.

But even during Bethlehem's heyday, workers dealt with periodic layoffs and even strikes.

Selhorst, for instance, was laid off for 18 months in the early 1980s. Donald said that when he was a child, his school chums would tell him the latest layoff rumors, knowing his dad worked at the mill.

But work disruptions back then were nothing compared with the unease that has settled upon the mill since Bethlehem's bankruptcy filing in 2001.

"It doesn't seem like we've been on stable ground since," Donald said.

Bethlehem sold the Sparrows Point plant in 2003 to International Steel Group. Other owners followed in quick succession: Mittal, OAO Severstal and RG Steel.

From this point forward, workers will find out week to week whether they'll be laid off or receive a reprieve.

Jim Stone, 44, an electrician, said when he saw his name on this week's work schedule, he texted the good news to his wife. "Hooray," she wrote back.

Stone has worked at Sparrows Point for 17 years, and because of his type of work he's avoided layoffs all that time. He said he could find other work given the demand for his trade, but for now his life is on hold.

"It's just the uncertainty of it, just not knowing whether we have a job, planning for our future," Stone said.

Meanwhile, his wife, who was laid off more than 10 months ago from a financial company, is looking for work. He has a son in high school and a daughter who's finishing her second year at a community college and exploring four-year schools. Stone is concerned about how he'll make his mortgage if the plant isn't sold.

Some steelworkers said they have come to accept the ups and downs of manufacturing.

Charlie Taylor, 64, retired a year ago after 38 years at Sparrows Point. The retired electrical lineman said that he had been laid off before and that his hours had been cut.

"I tried not to put myself in a way that it would affect me mentally. And so it didn't bother me," Taylor said. "The younger guys I worked with were on pins and needles. A lot of them just bought houses when they cut their hours back. A lot of those guys had to get a part-time job or second job."

Randolph Williams, 64, said steelworkers learned to adapt to lean times.

"Work as much overtime as you could, and put money aside for a rainy day," he said.

Williams has worked 44 years at Sparrows Point and hopes to retire early next year.

"I hope they stay in business for the young people," he said.

Donald's first layoff occurred under Severstal and lasted less than two months. Unemployment benefits and supplemental pay from the union replaced about 70 percent of his paycheck. He took online college classes, and his wife, Tina, a stay-at-home parent, returned to work part time as a teacher's aide at her children's school.

During this latest layoff, Donald said, he'll continue with his classes. He's a year and a half shy of a four-year degree in construction management. He has heard from headhunters but isn't ready to give up on Sparrows Point yet.

Donald talked about his plans while watching his sons, Aaron, 8, and Zack, 5, toss a lacrosse ball in their backyard. Asked if he would want his sons to work at Sparrows Point some day, Donald didn't hesitate.

"It would be a good job for them," he said. "If the right buyer comes in, we're a buyer away from becoming prosperous again."

eileen.ambrose@baltsun.com

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