The Bitter End: Sparrows Point Workers Grieve as They Begin Making Plans for a Life After Steel

The Bitter End: Sparrows Point Workers Grieve as They Begin Making Plans for a Life After Steel

Lisa Zulauf, 23, operated a crane filling cars with molten steel and is now out of work. Credit Adam Bednar
Lisa Zulauf, 23, operated a crane filling cars with molten steel and is now out of work. Credit Adam Bednar

I dreamt about Sparrows Point the other night, dreamt that I was driving around Dundalk with my niece and no matter where we turned we ran into big black mill buildings stretching as far as the eye could see.

I never worked at Sparrows Point so it’s strange that I dream about it from time to time. Those recurring dreams may be part of the reason why I wrote Roots of Steel: Boom and Bust in an American Mill Town, a workers’ history of Sparrows Point. The book tells the story of my family and my community. For anyone who grew up in southeastern Baltimore county, the Sparrows Point steelworks was both bedrock—the foundation of the community’s prosperity and security—and myth.

Now that the works has been sold to Hilco Industries, an industrial liquidator who will tear it all down, it is the myth that will survive. But myths don't pay the mortgage. This Labor Day two thousand former employees of RG Steel in Baltimore are mourning not just a job that evaporated seemingly overnight, but the loss of their ‘family’ at the Point, and a vanishing way of life.  

Jeff Ervin, Jr., 31, is out of work. So are his father, two of his brothers and five cousins. They all worked for RG, the last of four owners to gnaw the bones of the Point after longtime owner Bethlehem Steel closed shop in 2001.

RG employees’ health insurance, life insurance, and other benefits terminated on August 31— less than a month after the announcement that Hilco won the bid on the Point.  Workers got their final paychecks mid-month. Those who went to the mailbox looking for a final subpay, or severance check, on August 31 were disappointed.

The 31-year old Ervin is married, with two sons, aged 11 and 7. His wife does not work outside the home because, he says, because for the past four years,  “I worked 16 hours a day four to five days a week and it was better for her to be home.”

Working at the Point was his dream job, Ervin says. In four years, he moved up two pay grades and five positions in the tandem mill, ending his career as a operator tech. He has applied for jobs at BGE, Amtrak and CSX.

Lisa Zulauf, 23, has been working “non-stop,” she says, since she was 14 years old but her job as a crane operator working the blast furnace at Sparrows Point, filling cars with molten iron, was the best job she ever had. “It’s nothing I ever thought I’d do,” says the former restaurant hostess, grocery store checker and shift manager at a Bel Air convenience store.

Zulauf went from making $9 at WaWa to $16 an hour when she was hired by RG Steel’s predecessor on the Point, Severstal, in November 2008. When she got her last paycheck in mid-August, she was making a little over $22 an hour — and working 60 hours a week. Her husband stayed home with their two sons, aged 2 and 5. Now he’s going back to work and she is going back to school to become a medical assistant.

It wasn’t just the money that made working at the Point so fulfilling, Zulauf says.

“It’s that ‘we built America’ thing. It was amazing to be part of that.” No one has not worked in a steel mill will ever fully understand the intense closeness and camaraderie you feel with your fellow workers there, she adds. “You trust these people with your life. I miss my friends there like crazy.”

For Zulauf and Ervin, the past month has been emotionally wrenching. They fully expected the Sparrows Point works to be bought by another operator. “Our last day of work I said, ‘see you next month’,” Zulauf recalls. She and some of her blast furnace coworkers went to Ocean City for a little r and r.

Hearing that the winning bidder was a liquidator was a total shock. “The day we got sold I got text after text saying SOLD, SOLD, SOLD,” says Ervin, Jr. “Finding out it was a scrap dealer was like getting punched in the face.”

Tom Szewczyk, 57, has been through steel shutdowns before. He was working for Thompson Wire when the company’s mill on North Point Road closed in 2000. In his younger days, he worked at an Inland Steel facility next door.  “We were making $9 an hour in ’79 which was good money back then,” he says. “Well, they sold the place, shut down for a week and reopened as a non-union shop. They got rid of 80 out of 100 people, brought in temps and paid them $2.80 an hour.”

The biggest difference between the current situation and the Thompson and Inland shutdowns, he says is at those places “at least at the end of the day we got everything owed to us — vacation pay, severance. This company just shut the door and said ‘you get nothing.’”

Szewczyk is not worried about health insurance, he says, because he’s a Coast Guard veteran and can use the Veterans Administration Health System. “I’m also fortunate because my wife works and we’re not over-extravagant,” he says. “But my unemployment will run out eventually so I gotta get a job, something to get me through the next five years.”

If he were to retire now, he would get a small pension – around $600 a month – from the Steelworkers Pension Trust Fund, he says. “But unemployment would deduct that from my monthly checks.”

In his younger days there was always someplace else to go to find work and someone willing to hire him, Szewczyk says. He’s not sure that’s the case now. A friend has recommended that he put together a functional resume that doesn’t require dates of employment. “Once they see how old you are, they ain’t gonna call you,” the friend kindly pointed out.

Steelworkers aren’t the only ones feeling the pain. Local business too are hurting. Lori Gloeichman, 33, manager of the 7-11 store at 2324 Sparrows Point Road, says that when she started at the store five years ago, it was so busy that checkout lines sometimes stretched out the door. “Now there’s no lunchtime rush, no breakfast rush.” Some of her former customers stopped in to say goodbye. “It’s like a family down here,” she says.

Szewczyk, who lives in Dundalk, agrees. “This community, our whole life was Bethlehem Steel,” he says. “We’re a dying breed.”


Originally Posted at: The North Baltimore Patch