Steelworkers face hurdles in getting benefits info
Wednesday, 27 February 2013 15:49

The Eastpoint Workforce Development Center is facing criticism from steelworkers.

Frustration and anger brewing; deadlines loom

by Nicole Rodman

    Since the closure of the Sparrows Point steel mill last year, most former steelworkers and their families have been scrambling to keep their finances afloat.
    In response to these trying times, local officials and media outlets, including The Eagle, have urged workers to visit the Eastpoint Workforce Development Center.
    At the Workforce Development Center, workers have been told, a separate unit has been set up to assist steelworkers applying for government benefits such as the U.S. Department of Labor’s Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA)  program.
    Under TAA, workers who have lost jobs due to increased imports or foreign production can access financial benefits and job resources.
    Workers may also be eligible for the Health Care Tax Credit (HCTC), which is supposed to help workers and their families afford health insurance.
    While this all sounds promising, some steelworkers say that the promise has been broken.
    According to a number of former workers, their experience at the Eastpoint Workforce Development Center has been confusing, frustrating and unhelpful.
    They complain that the staff is uninformed and unable to assist steelworkers seeking to apply for benefits.
    Many say they have left the center frustrated and more confused than when they arrived.
    With confusion high and filing deadlines looming, workers are increasingly desperate for information.
    People are “falling through the cracks,” Tracey Coleman, wife of a steelworker and coordinator of monthly food pantry events at the Dundalk Steelworkers hall, told The Eagle last month.
    As Coleman noted, she and other steelworker families have spoken with Del. John Olszewski Jr. about the issue, hoping to get some help.
    Olszewski said he is sympathetic to their concerns.
    “I’m all for doing anything that would help people in need access their benefits,” Olszewski said when reached for comment.
    In remarks to The Eagle, Olszewski noted that he asked the county to create a stand-alone facility to aid the steelworkers.
    His efforts were not successful and he said the county seemed relunctant to create the new center.   
    The Eastpoint Workforce Development Center serves all un-and-underemployed workers in the area, meaning that the center was already busy prior to the addition of laid-off steelworkers to the mix.
    This makes it more difficult for steelworkers to get the help they need.
    Olszewski also noted that he has been talking with an Ohio-based training company that is interested in working to help former steelworkers get credentials toward a new career.
     The company, he said, would like to help, but they are “getting the runaround” in their attempts.
    The delegate worries that these issues and delays will cause workers to miss out on much-needed benefits.
    “It [would be] unfortunate if anyone who needed to access funds was unable to,” he said.
    When reached for comment, the Eastpoint Workforce Development Center forwarded questions to Baltimore County spokeswoman Fronda Cohen.
    In a phone call with The Eagle on Feb. 8, Cohen noted that she had spoken with staff at the Workforce Development Center and was “very concerned that people were confused.”
    As she explained, the staff in the steelworkers unit are a mix of state and county workers.
    Though they attend training sessions each week, the ever-changing nature of the TAA and other benefits makes keeping up difficult.
    “Staff is as current as possible,” she said.
    She also noted the complexity of the benefits and the case-by-case nature of the center’s work.
    “There are so many layers to it, and each situation is different,” she noted.
    Cohen encouraged workers who experienced difficulties to come back to the center and try again.
    Cohen also discussed  a new re-employment hotline for workers who would like to speak with career resource specialists.
    According to Cohen, the specialists can help workers find new jobs, refresh resumés and access career training.
    Those interested can call Gary Kleiner, case manager of the steelworker assistance unit at the Workforce Development Center, at 410-288-9050, extension 408.
    Callers can receive assistance over the phone or make an appointment to speak with a specialist in person.
    It is best to call in advance for an appointment, Cohen noted.
    Cohen said that Baltimore County does sympathize with confused and frustrated workers.
    “Everyone recognizes how difficult and stressful it is,” she noted.
    Laid-off steelworkers seeking assistance can contact the Eastpoint Workforce Development Center at 410-288-9050, ext. 408, or visit the center at 7930 Eastern Boulevard next to the Goodwill Superstore in Eastpoint.
    For access to a variety of online resources, visit www.baltimorecountymd.gov/Agencies/economicdev
/rgsteelresourceguide.html.