'Hopefully somebody will take care of us.' Workers, retirees face uncertain future

While nearly 200 steelworkers are back on the job at Hamilton Specialty Bar for at least a few weeks. But the reprieve comes with no guarantees.

Hamilton Specialty Bar shutdown leaves hundreds of workers, retirees in limbo

Bob Hamilton is back at work this month after being off on sick leave with liver cancer. His company, Hamilton Specialty Bar, is in receivership. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

Bob Hamilton, 60, spent the weekend getting tests for the bowel cancer that spread to his liver last year.

For the rest of the week, he's working night shifts at Hamilton Specialty Bar. He's back at work, despite the cancer, trying to save up a bit of a safety net.

That's because the veteran steelworker and about 170 others at the company have no idea how long the jobs and the benefits they count on will last. Right now, they have work until the end of February.

After that, Hamilton knows he may be collecting unemployment while carrying out his continued chemo treatments.

Hamilton went off on sick leave last year due to the cancer. The news of the company shutdown after Christmas came as a blow. And it has left him and hundreds of other workers and retirees in limbo.

"Obviously it was a shock. All of a sudden I lost all of my benefits," he said.

"Short-term disability, I was told that was gone. And then I heard there was four weeks worth of work. So it's either get zero, or work four weeks and kind of pad up before I have to go for unemployment insurance."

Veteran steelworker back at work while battling cancer

5 years ago
Duration 0:49
Veteran steelworker back at work while battling cancer

'I guess I'll be making that temporary filling last a long time'

The company is now in receivership under the control of a trustee.

The first week of January, company executives told the union, United Steelworkers Local 4752, that they had a "cash flow problem" and wouldn't be running.

By Jan. 8, the papers had been filed for the company to enter a receivership, where a third party assumes control of the company while it is in court-supervised bankruptcy protection or restructuring.

But in mid-January, the plant was humming again, cranking out orders for the company's top three clients left in the lurch by the news of the shutdown.

February 27 is the latest date through which workers know they'll be employed.

Until last Friday, prescription drug and other benefits weren't accessible for even the workers who were actively at the plant making steel.

Beyond the active workers, about 400 retirees have lost their medical and other retirement benefits during the shutdown.

Joe Butera just retired in October after about 30 years working in the lab at the company.

He said the uncertainty is the hardest part – right now, the bills for his prescription drugs monthly won't leave him "seriously incapacitated."

"HSB is like a cat with nine lives; it keeps on coming back," he said. "I hope it still has one of those lives."

As of Jan. 16, 170 unionized workers were back at work at Hamilton Specialty Bar, a steel company that entered receivership earlier this month. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

Gary Skarupa, 59, spent 38 years at the company, working in the melt shop. His father worked there for over 30 years, too.

He just paid out of pocket for prescriptions last week. And he recently went for a temporary filling, anticipating coming back for a crown. Now he's faced with paying the $1,200 bill for that himself.

"I guess I'll be making that temporary filling last a long time," he said.

'Hopefully somebody will take care of us'

Skarupa attended a meeting last week with active and retired workers.

"It's not a very good situation," he said. "When you see all the guys in that union hall, using walkers and everything – these are life-saving drugs in some cases. You've got to wonder how you can deny benefits to someone like that."

"We have hope that hopefully somebody will take care of us," Skarupa said.

Steve Straza has been at the company for about 3 years. His previous gig, 20 years in heat and frost insulation, dried up and he saw steel as his second act.

That act could turn out to be shorter than he expected. He's nearly 50 years old, and wondering if he should switch gears entirely in his career.

"I'm trying to remain hopeful," he said. "It's kind of like being in limbo right now."

Local steelmaker Hamilton Specialty Bar is in receivership, but 170 unionized workers were back on the job as of Jan. 16 until Feb. 27. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

Most retirees have been with the company throughout its bumpy history.

Jim Hill, 80, retired in 2001 after various stints at Specialty Bar going back to 1958. When the company went through bankruptcy restructuring in 2007, he lost about 20 per cent of his pension.

"We lost benefits then, too," he said. "When they started up again the union was able to renegotiate retirees back in the benefits."

Until now.

The company is being run by a receiver, Ernst and Young.

Sarah Shields, a public relations representative for the company, said Ernst and Young is "unable" to comment on clients.

'I need a few more years as well'

Hamilton has worked at the company for 28 years.

"I hope they get a buyer, and a progressive one, that will actually keep the mill and the whole place running for years down the road for all the younger employees," he said. "I need a few more years as well."

Bob Hamilton, 60, has been working at Hamilton Specialty Barfor 28 years. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

Mickey Mercanti, president of Local 4752, said multiple bids to buy the company came in by a deadline last Friday, but he hadn't been told yet how many of them want to keep the company running.

As of Friday, though, the active employees had their benefits back on, including any on sick leave, Mercanti said.



Kelly Bennett is a freelance reporter based in Hamilton. Her writing has appeared in CBC News, the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, Voice of San Diego and in the National Observer for the Local Journalism Initiative. You can follow her on Twitter @kellyrbennett or email kelly@kellyrbennett.com.