After Monica Hollen viewed Set for Life: The Rise and Fall of a West Virginia Steel Town, she sent us this story about her father, a former Weirton mill steelworker:
I would first like to say that I am glad someone is bringing light to this issue!
When I saw an article about this in our local paper, I immediately thought of my father who, I feel, is the poster child for this message. Following in the footsteps of his father, he worked over 35 years in Weirton Steel, having been laid off just a small handful of times. Thankfully, when he would get laid off, he would seek outside employment driving truck (which would save him later in life.)
His mill career finally came to an end as I was graduating high school. I can remember him bringing home stacks and stacks of papers with names and stats on them. He frequently told me that the papers listed seniority among workers and he was counting how long he had left to remain employed. Finally, in an attempt not to lose everything, he accepted a “buyout.” It included a relatively small sum of money, temporary unemployment benefits and the ability to go to college and pursue a 2-year degree. He took advantage of all of that.
However, the sum of money and unemployment did not compensate for what he was accustomed to making, so he started driving school bus part time as well (thanks to the CDL he obtained when he was laid off several times). He started attending classes at the local community college the summer that I graduated high school. He chose to pursue a degree in accounting hoping to find work in that field upon graduation. In the fall, I also began attending that community college and 2 years later, we graduated together- both straight-A students! However, the day before graduation, the physical demands of being a full-time college student and part-time bus driver caught up with my father (who was in his 50’s) and he was admitted to the hospital! He missed our big moment.
We found out he had a “weak heart muscle.” He finally had the degree that was supposed to help him support himself and was under doctor’s orders not to work. Thankfully, bus drivers get summers off, so he had a few months to recover and was able to return to his part-time job as a bus driver in the fall.
However, the income from that job was only enough when the unemployment was available, which it no longer was and my dad was prohibited by his doctor from seeking further employment in the accounting field. When he finally was released to work a second job, he realized that although his bus job did not pay very well, it had wonderful benefits and with his heart condition on top of his diabetes and high blood pressure he could not afford to give up the medical benefits that allowed him to get his medications each month. He did try to find an accounting job that would work around his bus schedule, but that was not a fruitful search so my father has struggled for several years now.
He often could not make ends meet, having his phone and other utilities shut off. His parents (who are both older and unemployed themselves) have helped him as much as possible. The past 2 summers he has found work as a mechanic working in bus garages, but it is very physical work and with his condition, I worry daily about how well his health is holding up.
I realize he has no choice because that is how he makes ends meet, but it does not make it any less scary. I came very close to losing my father three years ago and I worry about him every day now. However, having had a prosperous career for most of his life, he is hesitant to accept handouts from others. Also, my father is a very big-hearted man with three daughters. Despite not having enough money to pay his bills, he is often giving or helping any of us with anything we need or want. I know it kills him to be in the position he is in when he started 4 decades ago thinking he would be set for life. I know he had dreams of a house where his grandchildren could come visit and he could spoil them and I know it weighs heavily on his heart that he can’t have that.
Once again, I am so glad someone is bringing to light the heartfelt stories that the mill workers have because each story is heartbreaking and someone needs to do something about this!