Local plants idle amid layoffs


    The global impact of the Coronavirus pandemic coupled with decreased oil and gas market has hit home—hard. U.S. Steel in Lone Star and Wheeling Machine Products in Hughes Springs have undergone massive layoffs in the past couple of months.

   The Morris County tubular operations plant, which most recently employed some 500 hourly workers, began laying off some 24 employees in May, By mid to late June, the two mills became almost completely idle only retaining a few employees to patrol.  

    According to Trey “Tiny” Green, president of the United Steelworkers of America Local 4134, initially, workers had hoped for fewer job losses.  A WARN (Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification) Act notice, a federal mandate that requires employers with 100 or more employees to provide 60 days’ notice of mass layoffs and plant closings, had been sent to all  Lone Star employees in March. The notice signaled the first signs of concerns.

   “The first WARN act notice to us March 23 indicated there were high levels of import and it explained that the market was not good,” recalled Green, who has worked for U.S. Steel for the past 15 years. “Portions of the mill would be idling, but they believed two areas would be able to remain open. Then we get another notice May 1 and it included Coronavirus concerns and indicated that the mill could no longer run in those two smaller areas.”

    In a statement issued to stakeholders and employees May 1, President and Chief Executive Officer David B. Burritt shared the company’s explanation for the layoffs.

    “In this unprecedented and rapidly changing situation, our first priority remains the safety and well-being of our employees,” Burritt explained. “As an essential part of our critical infrastructure, our employees have embraced the special responsibility to continue making the steel society needs, including the packaging for our food supply during the COVID-19 pandemic response.  To ensure a more secure future for all our stakeholders, the time has come for us to take aggressive actions to reposition the company. U. S. Steel has been a cornerstone of manufacturing for over a century and our products are vital to national and economic security.  I am confident in the resilience of our employees, the strength of our customer relationships, and the reliability of our regional supply chain.  The actions we are announcing make us stronger and enable us to weather the current situation to emerge as a leader in sustainable steel solutions for generations to come.”

   In the first quarter of this year, U.S. Steel reported a company-wide net loss of $391 million. By comparison, the steel company earned $54 million in the first quarter a year earlier in 2019. Locally, these latest layoffs will be felt by every aspect of the community.

   “Our community has always rallied around us every time we’ve had to go through something like this,” Green said.

   In fact, the last massive layoff in Lone Star occurred in 2015. It was two years later when a much smaller portion of the original workforce finally returned to work.

   ‘We’ve never gotten back to what we were before 2015 and now this,” Green said. “We’re being stretched even further this time around, but we know we have the community’s support. This community suffers right along with us every single time.”

   Green accurately predicted the layoffs would happen swiftly.

   “We’re going to see this through to the end of May,” Green said in early May. ‘By then, we’ll be down to only those on fire watch and utilities. It will be a skeletal crew by June.”

    From there, employees will turn to the Texas Workforce Commission (TWC) for next steps in the process.

   ‘We help to match employees with TWC representatives so that they can learn about all of their (unemployment) benefits and learn how to possibly get retrained,” Green explained. “Normally, we would facilitate that here through our local hall, but because of Coronavirus we will have to help with setting up conference calls instead of (face-to-face) meetings.”