Workers at Birmingham’s U.S. Steel face uncertainty after layoffs

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Cancer forced Isaiah Henderson to stop working in December.

An employee of U.S. Steel for eight years, Henderson found out in August there would be no job to come back to because of layoffs after to the shutdown of the Fairfield blast furnace.

About 1,100 of U.S. Steel’s Fairfield employees are joining the 42-year-old McCalla man in unemployment as the company, once Birmingham’s largest employer, cuts jobs nationwide.

Henderson isn’t bitter. But like hundreds of others affected by the cuts, he faces uncertainty.

“When times were good, it was an excellent place to work. Great pay, great benefits,” Henderson said. “The last couple of years, it’s just gone down. With the economy being the way it’s been, there was nothing that could be done.”

“The current trade situation has made the situation much worse,” David Clark, president of United Steel Workers Local 1013, said in a recent interview. “We have global over-capacity. We cut our output across the U.S., but China is running above capacity or at capacity.

“And the recent trade agreements offer very little to no protection to workers. It’s all just made the situation worse.”

Volunteers met Friday at the union hall to unload pallets of donated food to stock a pantry set up to help the workers. More than an hour before it was set to open, a line formed on the sidewalk and people took numbers to get a turn.

Derek Smith, a 34-year-old McCalla resident, was there to help out even though he himself was laid off from his position as a business planner for the company about a month ago.

Smith, a husband and father to a 2-year-old and 5-year-old, said he was there to pitch in because he knows many who have been laid off longer than him are struggling.

“It’s tough on people. It’s tougher on others,” Smith said. “Lord knows, I’d appreciate it when it comes my turn.

“This affects so many people. There are a whole lot of people hurting.”

For Jefferson County Commission President Jimmie Stephens, the situation is sadly familiar.

Stephens can still remember the early 1980s layoffs at Pullman-Standard, one of the nation’s largest rail-car makers, and Birmingham-area steel mills. By 1983, Bessemer’s unemployment rate was more than 30 percent and the damage was felt for decades.

“(Bessemer) just now has a diverse enough economy to come back, and you still see lingering effects,” Stephens said.

Stephens worries now about those laid off from U.S. Steel, and the hundreds of miners laid off from Walter Energy, and what those job losses will do to west Jefferson County.

“We are being hit twice and it’s going to be devastating,” Stephens said. “We’re trying to place some of these workers. It’s imperative we bring other businesses to the western part of the county to help these workers.”

Stephens said he is working with Lawson State Community College and mayors of west Jefferson cities to try and develop a plan to recruit businesses and create a list of available industrial locations to recruit new companies.

“We’ve never done that before. It’s more imperative now than ever before that we do that.”

John Purifoy said he knows his time is coming. U.S. Steel has told him he’s being laid off but has not said when.

“It’s hard when you have worked somewhere as long as I have and it feels like it’s been stable,” said Purifoy, an 18-year veteran of the company. “Then people who have never seen you or know your situation decide you’re no longer needed.”

The 43-year-old Calera man said the uncertainty takes a toll.

“It used to be the ‘what if this happens’ that was overwhelming. Now, it’s the ‘when’ that’s overwhelming,” Purifoy said. “Where do you go next?”

Smith said he has résumés out and applications filed after losing his job of more than 13 years.

“It’s a punch in the gut,” Smith said. “Something that has been steady for years isn’t there anymore.”

Smith said he just hopes to find a job that pays as well as U.S. Steel did.

“More than likely, that’s not going to happen. You just have to adjust. That’s life,” Smith said.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

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