Unemployed in Alabama -- and waiting for the economy to turn around

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Some of the nation's laid-off steel and rubber workers have gone fishing while they wait to get their jobs back.

Though not generally known as such, Alabama is a major steel and tire producing state. As Americans have cut back on purchases of refrigerators, stoves, lawn mowers, new cars, and replacement tires, unemployment in Alabama has been running higher than in any other state except Michigan. Most of the layoffs here have been in the steel industry.

But optimistic that the economy will improve soon, and with jobs of $23,000 and up in take-home pay awaiting them if they are recalled, laid-off steelworkers are hoping to get their old jobs back. Company and government unemployment benefits nearly equaling their salaries at first made the wait a lot easier.

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Now, however, company benefits, which were the largest chunk of the payments, have ended for all but the most veteran employees. And even government unemployment benefits (typically $90 a week here) are running out for some.

So steelworkers like Mickey Ford, one of about 800 workers laid off from Republic Steel Corporation here, are beginning to look for other jobs -- as the financial pinch gets tighter and boredom sets in.

''It's (the) not working that's driving me crazy,'' he said in an interview in the house trailer he rents for $135 a month about 20 miles from Gadsden, a distance he commutes by motorcycle.

He was laid off in January. His $145-a-week company unemployment benefits ran out in March, because Republic's fund ran out except for veterans of 20 years or more. With their first baby born April 8, Mickey and his wife, Bobbie, are ''starting to feel it (the pinch) now,'' he says. He admits feeling a little ''scared.''

Recently he unsuccessfully sought a job on an offshore oil rig. He has vaguely considered starting a T-shirt design business and would like to submit free-lance stories to comic book companies. He has a two-shelf comic-book collection he has been rereading in his spare time.

''I'm optimistic,'' he says. ''I'm a survivor.'' Several times in the past, he says, he has been nearly broke. But an unexpected check for vacation pay, a tax refund, or help from friends has always met the need. ''I know someone's looking out for me,'' he said in reference to his religious faith.

Alabama's unemployment in February (latest month available) was 13.9 percent, only slightly higher than Indiana (13.3) and behind Michigan's 16.1 on a rate not seasonally adjusted. On a rate adjusted for seasonal ups and downs last year , Alabama's unemployment averaged 10.7 percent, equal with West Virginia and behind only Michigan's (the highest in the nation) 12.3.

Republic Steel and Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company are the two industrial giants in this northeastern Alabama city on the Coosa River. Both are unionized and have been for years, following what one student of the labor movement here says were long and ''bloody'' fights.

Republic's normal strength, now down about 800, is around 3,500. ''Our mill will operate as business dictates,'' says company spokesman Robin Stone. Right now, he says, steel orders, like much of the economy, are down.

Goodyear has laid off only about 85 of a normal work force of about 3,800, says company spokesman Joe Smith at the Gadsden plant, which he says is the world's largest tire and tube plant. Alabama, he adds, produces more tires than any other state because of the assortment of major companies around the state.

In the last several months, Goodyear has several times sent hundreds of workers home without work for a week, the last time 900 workers. This beats indefinite layoffs, says plant manager Eddie B. Steffey. ''We want to keep the skilled workers together and they want to keep their income,'' he says.

City officials are optimistic that the economy will pick up soon and the laid-off workers return to their jobs. ''We know when it (the economy) is down, it's got to go up,'' says M. D. Garmon, assistant to Gadsden Mayor Steve Means.

At the time of this reporter's visit to Gadsden, Mayor Means was out of state hunting prospective businesses to locate here.

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