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500 steelworkers turn out to receive United Way holiday meals

Workers from now-closed Sparrows Point plant were once among charity's most generous Md. donors

By Yvonne Wenger, The Baltimore Sun

6:33 PM PST, December 20, 2012

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For years, Jeff Mikula collected United Way donations from his fellow steelworkers at Sparrows Point. On Thursday, he — and 500 former co-workers from the now-closed plant — stood in line to receive them.

The Dundalk man, who worked as an ironman for nearly 39 years at the mill, said accepting boxes stuffed by volunteers with chicken roasters and fixings for Christmas dinner was hard for the steelworkers, who were once among the charity's most generous donors in Maryland.

"You see the need; you see what people are going through, the heartache," said Mikula, 57. "Steelworkers are proud people. They hate to ask. I always try to make a living on my own. I was taught that as long as you have your health, you can make your wealth.

"In these times, it's a lot different — a whole lot different."

Many of the 2,000 laid-off Sparrows Point workers had held out hope that the plant would reopen. But earlier this month they learned that the current owners had canceled an auction for the plant and were instead selling it off in pieces. The 125-year-old mill, which was sold at a bankruptcy auction in August, is expected to be razed.

In all, the United Way provided 17 truckloads of holiday meals distributed by the Maryland Food Bank, AFL-CIO Community Services and the steelworkers themselves. On Friday, 1,500 additional meals will be offered to steelworkers, plant retirees and Sparrows Point residents at the union hall on Dundalk Avenue.

Mark Furst, president of the United Way of Central Maryland, said the giveaway was as much about helping individuals in need as it was about saying thank you.

"The steelworkers have given extremely generously," Furst said. "Through all of that, the downsizing and the layoffs, every year the steelworkers gave back to the community."

Federal job training and stipends equal to unemployment benefits are among the resources available to the steelworkers. The Maryland Food Bank has provided boxed meals to the union men and women on at least three previous occasions.

"I'd never thought I would have been standing in line for food," said Joe Trotta, who worked at the mill for 10 years. Trotta and his wife, Tonia, have applied for food stamps while he looks for work, but they said the government assistance doesn't cover their family's needs.

Steve Rehak, a third-generation steelworker, said the free meals help him save some money he can put toward his bills, including college tuition for his two sons. He has picked up some hours as a longshoreman at the Baltimore port, but he said he needs full-time work.

"I'm a trained mechanic, and I can't find a job," the 50-year-old Edgemere man said. "I haven't paid my mortgage yet this month. They call me every month and I say, 'Look, I'll pay you when I get the money.'

"Every little bit helps."

Keith Scott, president of the Baltimore County Chamber of Commerce, said the situation offers an opportunity for the jobless workers to go back to trade school or college with federal tuition assistance and pursue careers they may have dreamed of. Even without more training, he said, the steelworkers are strong job candidates.

"Their work quality, your ability to show up on time and get the job done, that's what the steelworkers have done for years," Scott said. "Those are the type of people you want to hire."

Sharon Pritchard of Stanbrook, a safety coordinator at the plant, said she's grateful for the help but scared for her future.

"I'd rather have my job than a turkey," she said. "I have 40 years down there. I am 60 years old. Where am I going to go?"

ywenger@baltsun.com

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Holiday Meals available

The United Way will provide boxed holiday meals, including chicken roasters, collard greens, applesauce and other fixings for laid-off Sparrows Point steelworkers, the mill's retirees and community residents from noon to 4 p.m. at the union hall, 550 Dundalk Ave., Baltimore.

For additional help, call the United Way at 211.