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Former Geneva Steel workers still struggling to recover, says new BYU study

PROVO, Utah -- Nearly two years after the announcement of Geneva Steel's closure, the former steelworkers face high rates of joblessness and depression and perceive an air of indifference from the community, says a Brigham Young University research team.

Sociology professors Marie Cornwall and Ralph Brown are issuing a preliminary summary of their study on the social costs of Geneva's closure. As of August, barely a third of former Geneva workers had found full-time employment. Thirty-nine percent of steelworkers reported experiencing symptoms of depression and 15 percent indicated having contemplated suicide sometime in the past week.

"My sense is that most of us are so wrapped up in the idea of technological progress that we often don't think about the human cost when we move on," said Brown. "There needs to be more recognition of the human by-product when we do so."

Cornwall, Brown and their students have twice surveyed 623 union workers, first in June 2002 and again in August 2003, and conducted more than 100 in-depth interviews with workers and their spouses. The researchers intend to bring community leaders and legislators up to date on the challenges created by the plant's closure and give input on policy issues such as retraining programs and health insurance.

One common thread in the workers' stories is the importance they place on community. A majority of workers feel that the community's stereotype of steelworkers hurts their chances in job interviews. At the same time, nearly 90 percent of those surveyed who were still looking for work in August said they were unwilling or reluctant to leave Utah Valley.

"Most Geneva Steel workers were born, raised and married here in this valley," said Brown. "Closing Geneva is much different than closing down a company such as Novell because these guys are inherently less mobile. Their life experience and networks are all here, making the chances of finding occupations somewhere else slim."

After the plant shut down, 36 percent of the workers enrolled in a retraining program called Training Adjustment Assistance, which was set up in 1974 to assist American workers who lost jobs to foreign competition. The program gives up to two years of assistance for schooling and extends benefits from unemployment insurance.

"A lot of the workers were steered into air conditioning and heating repair, electrician programs and trucking school," said Lindsay Doles, a sociology undergraduate who leads student research on the effect of retraining.

Recent reforms to TAA added health insurance options for participants as well as wage compensation for workers over 50 who opt not to invest the time to retrain with retirement looming.

"Had the changes been made sooner, these provisions would have allowed more of the steelworkers to participate," Doles said. "Unfortunately, they only had a short window of time to apply when the plant closed."

Although many of the workers struggle to pay mortgages, rent, groceries and gas, the most frequently reported financial difficulty was medical bills.

"The lack of health insurance is a tremendous problem for these workers," said Cornwall. "They report poor health, high levels of pain, and are more likely to delay seeking medical care because they lack insurance or can't afford to go to the doctor."

Besides using the project as an opportunity to mentor students on sociology research, Cornwall and Brown plan to write a book on the social costs incurred when a major manufacturing plant shuts down. In the meantime, they continue to spread a message of compassion for the steelworkers who are still trying to recover.

"People should know how much some families in their own community are struggling," Cornwall said. "With the holiday season here, now would be a perfect opportunity to demonstrate their concern and lend a hand."

Writer: Joseph Hadfield

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