Nearly four months after shuttering, Hibbing Taconite, Northshore Mining and MinnTac are all expected to restart operations this week. But workers at the U.S. Steel-owned Keewatin Taconite plant on the Iron Range say they plan to continue collecting unemployment and seeking out options for medical insurance as the facility remains idle.
Dan Pierce, president of United Steelworkers Local 2660, told the Mesabi Tribune earlier this week that 340 out of 380 workers at the Keewatin plant are out of a job. Many of them are paying bills with their unemployment checks, just like others in the region.
“I prepared the best that I could,” said Pierce, who has experienced the boom and bust cycle of the mining industry for more than two decades. Most recently, he worked as an auto and diesel mechanic for Keetac until he took a voluntary layoff to show solidarity with the union workers. “Being on unemployment is a hindrance, just like everyone else, but I have enough to pay my bills.”
Pierce emphasized that the “situation is different for everyone,” and noted that some workers are looking for jobs elsewhere while all of them are adapting to the recent expiration of the weekly $600 in boost from the federal government.
For now, the loss of medical insurance worries him most. Workers with less than two years lost their insurance the month following the idle, Pierce said. Those with two to 10 years should expect to lose their insurance after six months. He tells the union members they can now “go on their spouse’s insurance or find insurance on MNCare or outside entities.”
Since the onset of COVID-19 in Minnesota, four mines on the Iron Range have idled or cut back production resulting in more than 17,000 layoffs.
In mid-April, Cleveland-Cliffs became the first mining company to have an operation fall, as the company announced the idling of Northshore Mining in Silver Bay and Babbitt until August. At least 470 of its 570 employees were laid off.
The following day, U.S. Steel representatives said they would idle the Keetac mine and processing facility in Keewatin and lay off 375 of its 423 employees without a solid idea of when work would again become available, calling the shutdown indefinite.
Next up, Hibbing Taconite, run by ArcelorMittal, made public its closure. About 650 employees were laid off.
Then in May, U.S. Steel-owned Minntac became the fourth of six mines on the Range to say it would lay off workers. Although the mine would still operate, at least 260 employees were without jobs.
Since then, Minntac and Northshore mines reopened at the end of July. ArcelorMittal previously said HibTac would come back online on Thursday.
But this past Monday, U.S. Steel representatives said in an earning call that two of its blast furnaces will remain shut down for the remainder of the year.
“It’s totally out of our control in the mining industry,” Pierce said following the announcement. “All we can do now is try to take care of our families and try to stay healthy.”
The coronavirus sent miners home under Gov. Tim Walz’s stay-at-home order and his subsequent extensions that shut down many businesses across the state bar the mines.
The governor has since allowed the stay-at-home to expire, reopened outdoors activities and allowed all restaurants and bars with outdoor seating to reopen with about half its capacity since June. Hair salons are reopening again at restricted capacity and so are some cities and county governments across the state.
Despite the economic dip in the mining industry, Cleveland-Cliffs’ United Taconite and ArcelorMittal’s Minorca Mine managed to stay in full operations. But miners at other plants were among the bartenders, waitresses, hairdressers and numerous business owners in the region to apply for unemployment insurance.
Between March 16 and June 14, at least 27,244 people in St. Louis County filed for unemployment, about 26.4 percent of the labor force, according to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development. As of Thursday, at least 30,336 people in the county, or 29.4 percent of the labor force, had sought out unemployment. The majority of the workers were affected in food and beverage servicing (2,608 unemployment applications), construction trades (2,241), retail sales (1,788) and cooks and food preparation (1,212).
Today, some miners are returning to work in an industry that has made a comeback in recent years, shipping out 37 million tons of taconite to steelmakers in 2019. But as many have been able to weather economic fallouts of the past, at least 1,600 mining jobs, or 25 percent, have vanished from the region over two decades.
Adding to the current challenges, at least three mining companies — United Taconite, MinnTac and Minorca — have announced that staff have tested positive for the coronavirus.
So far, none of the workers at Keetac have tested positive for the coronavirus or were sent home for quarantine, Pierce said. Protocols are being taken to practice mask-wearing and social distancing on the job-site, which can often be close-quartered depending on the work assignment.
Despite the reopening of mines, Pierce cannot help but think about the unemployed Keetac workers and how their financial struggles weigh on the region’s economy.
“I’m taking it as it comes because things can change so fast with the steel industry and the way it comes back,” he said. “Not only does it affect the Iron Range; it affects workers in Duluth and anyone that has anything to do with mining. The grocery stores, car dealerships and furniture stores. It affects a lot of our businesses where money is spent here.”