Metro-East News

State legislators give Granite City steel mill workers a boost

Workers who have been laid off from the Granite City Works United States Steel may have their unemployment benefits extended.
Workers who have been laid off from the Granite City Works United States Steel may have their unemployment benefits extended. BND file photo

They don’t have their jobs back yet, but laid-off workers at U.S. Steel’s Granite City mill received some good news Thursday.

A bill that would extend the workers’ unemployment benefits passed through both the Illinois House and Illinois Senate with overwhelming bipartisan support. The bill will go to Gov. Bruce Rauner. Should Rauner sign the bill, it would extend the unemployment benefits to 52 weeks for the approximately 2,300 workers who were laid off nearly a year ago.

“It’s a finger in the dike so to speak,” said Dan Simmons, local president of United Steelworkers Local 1899. “It was something that required a lot of effort from (legislators). Both sides of the aisle recognized that would help a lot of people.”

All but two House members voted in favor of the measure, while it passed in the Senate by a 47-6 margin. Kyle McCarter, R-Lebanon, was one of the few people to vote against the bill in the Senate.

“By approving Senate Bill 1941, the Senate passed a poor response to the plight of the Granite City steel workers,” McCarter said in a statement. “It raids the Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund and gives away money intended to lower the unemployment rates of all employers statewide. I understand the problems caused by China dumping low-priced steel. I expect this to be addressed by the new President. I feel compassion for the skilled laborers at Granite City Steel, but extending unemployment benefits is not the solution.”

The legislation was sponsored by several area legislators including state Rep. Jay Hoffman, D-Swansea; state Rep. Dan Beiser, D-Alton; state Rep. Dwight Kay, R-Glen Carbon; state Rep. Eddie Lee Jackson, D-East St. Louis; and state Sen. William Haine, D-Alton. The bill was a response to the idling of the mill. The layoffs started in late December 2015, due to an influx of cheap steel illegally imported into U.S. markets that reduced the demand for domestic steel.

“U.S. Steel workers and their families continue to suffer the disastrous effects of illegal trade practices in the steel market,” Hoffman said in a news release. “I will continue fighting for any relief that can be provided until the mills are up and running again.”

The amount of the extended weekly benefit would be the same as the weekly benefit of the regular unemployment period, plus dependents’ allowances. The regular maximum amount of time for someone to receive unemployment benefits is 26 weeks.

Simmons said some union workers have been able to find jobs, but not nearly at the same pay rate as they received at the steel mill.

“Usually those who found work, it was at half of what the wages were (at the mill),” Simmons said. “Some people had to sell their stuff, move and downsize. They have been through hell.”

Simmons said the Granite City community has rallied behind the mill workers.

“Granite City has stepped up with things like financial assistance and a food pantry,” Simmons said. “The proud steel workers have had to learn to accept some help.”

Simmons is hopeful the mill will be up and running again soon. He said the excess inventory of imported steel is starting to become depleted. That has led to higher prices. He sees an increase in demand once the winter season has passed.

“There is light at the end of the tunnel,” he said.

Don O’Brien: 618-239-2626, @DOBrienBND