National Steel Car halting operations due to PPE shortage amid COVID-19 pandemic

The shutdown means approximately 1,800 employees will soon be out of work, according to USW 7135.

'There's no money at home," says vice-president of USW Local 7135

National Steel Car will be temporarily shutting down amid the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a letter from its CEO. (Google Maps)

National Steel Car is shutting down operations, citing the need for the personal protective equipment (PPE) it uses to keep employees safe to be prioritized instead for healthcare workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The shutdown, which will begin at the end of the week, means approximately 1,800 employees will soon be out of work, said Paul Mathieson, vice-president of USW Local 7135.

Government requirements call for PPE to be supplied to healthcare workers and first responders, according to a message from Steel Car CEO Gregory Aziz dated March 31 and shared on the union's website.

"In order to maintain the health and safety of our employees, we must temporarily suspend our manufacturing operations until we are able to provide them with the PPE necessary for safe operations," it reads.

Fabrication and construction will be suspended as of Friday and all finishing and shipping operations will be shut down by April 17.

"Our Supply Management personnel are working diligently to secure the PPE supplies necessary for us to return to full production, as soon as possible," wrote Aziz. "Thank you for your trust and partnership in these very uncertain times."

The strained supply of protective gear has been an issue across the country as the pandemic continues, with healthcare workers rationing equipment while volunteers, organizations and manufacturers scramble to find or produce more masks, respirators and face shields.

Along with the PPE concerns, Mathieson said the union has been told the layoffs are linked to a shortage of work and rising concerns around COVID-19.

There were 101 confirmed cases in Hamilton as of noon Tuesday, as well as one death.

"I think they've been watching what's going on [around COVID-19] and it's not getting any better," he explained, pointing to the two confirmed cases of coronavirus at ArcelorDofasco, which is located next to NSC.

Now the workers are wondering whether they'll be paid out for the one-week waiting period while qualifying for employment insurance.

In response to the virus, the federal government has waived that waiting period for people in quarantine so they can be paid for the first week of their claim.

But Mathieson said it's not clear where that leaves NSC workers who may not be sick but were nevertheless forced off the job by the virus.

USW Local 7135 vice-president Paul Mathieson says the suspension of operations will leave 1,800 people out of work. (Google Maps)

Another major question facing NSC employees is how they'll gather all of the paper work needed to make sure they get paid while the company is temporarily suspended.

Despite its massive size, Steel Car has traditionally relied on handwritten records of employment (ROE)— a practice Mathieson described as "archaic."

But on Wednesday he was told that for the first time in the company's history the ROEs would be done electronically.

Mathieson said Steel Car did take steps to keep workers safe from COVID-19 by staggering shifts and telling workers to stay six feet apart, but lunch rooms and change rooms still presented opportunities for close contact where the virus could spread.

While some workers might be relieved to start working from home next week, the vice-president said they still face tough financial realities and questions about how to pay bills or put food on the table without their regular wages.

"I think most of the guys are happy not to be here," said Mathieson. "But it's sad because they know there's no money at home."