It's back to work -- for a while -- for some Gadsden, Ala., steelworkers

Steelworker Jimmy Champion's return to his old job this week in Gadsden, Ala. , after more than four months of being laid off is ''an answer to prayer,'' he says.

''Psychologically, as well as financially, you feel bad to be laid off,'' he says. ''You don't feel like you're (supporting) your family.''

But he says he knows that return of approximately 700 steelworkers to help Republic Steel rebuild its inventory may only be temporary. A plant spokesman says the workers may be needed for only two or three months, unless orders pick up again. And another 800 Republic workers laid off in the fall of 1981 are not being called back. Nationally some 167,000 steelworkers are still laid off, says a spokesman for the American Iron and Steel Institute. Steel plant employment is now about 225,000, the lowest since the institute began keeping such records in 1933.

Republic's rehiring is a ''very small'' ray of sunshine, and probably only a temporary one, says the institute's spokesman. ''There is certainly no mass movement back to normal employment levels [in the steel industry],'' the spokesman says.

Mr. Champion says he realizes this. So he is considering going back to school to learn new skills. During his period of layoff he supplemented his $90-a-week unemployment check with sale of his watercolors. He has a wife, Connie, and two children.

For steelworkers not going back to work, tough times are getting tougher.

''We're about to sell our car,'' says Rosemary East, whose husband, Ted, is not being called back to work. He was laid off from Republic in January 1982, then recalled for three months, then laid off again in August. The family can't keep up the car payments, she says. But food stamp officials have told them they have to sell their car anyway to lower their net worth to qualify for food stamps. The family also has a pickup truck.

Economists speak of the changes being forced on the American labor scene by the decline of some industries and rise of others in a world economy. Some of these changes can be seen among Gadsden's steelworkers.

The Colegrove family is an example. Melvin Colegrove, who is approaching retirement age after 27 years as a steelworker, has been laid off since last fall. He still hopes to go back to the steel plant. And his son, Robert, has just been called back to the plant. But his other two sons have taken other jobs: in a tuxedo rentals and Pac-Man servicing.

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