RUSSELL, Ky. — AK Steel announced earlier this year it will close its once booming steel manufacturing facility in Eastern Kentucky in January, but that advance notice hasn't made the reality of the job losses any easier for families facing job loss or relocation as the closure is now just a few months away.
“It is disheartening,” local Steelworkers Union President Kendall Kilgore said. “It (AK Steel) was an icon to this community."
On Tuesday AK Steel reaffirmed it is closing down its Ashland Works plant, sending out notices of the closure to some 260 employees.
Renee S. Filiatraut, vice president of external relations, labor and litigation at AK Steel, sent a letter detailing the notices to Michelle DeJohn, rapid response coordinator of the Kentucky Office of Employment & Training.
The letter from AK Steel states the following:
“As you know, on Jan. 28, 2019, AK Steel announced its plans to permanently shut down all operations at the Ashland Works by the end of 2019. This plant closing will affect all 260 employees at the Ashland Works, at 170 Armco Drive Ashland.
“Based on the best information available to AK Steel, we expect the closure of the Ashland Works to be completed in two phases over the next few months,” the letter states. “Position eliminations in Phase 1 will occur on Nov. 4, 2019, or during the two-week period thereafter. Position eliminations in Phase 2 will occur on Dec. 17, 2019, or during the two-week period thereafter. We expect that 176 employees will be separated during Phase 1 and the remaining 84 employees will be separated during Phase 2.”
Employees have been notified of the 60-day layoff notice, but details of how employees will be picked for the two phases of layoffs haven’t been determined.
“It provided many families with a good life," Kilgore said. "It’s going to be a great loss to Ashland.”
Steel worker Chris Griffith has worked at the plant along the Ohio River for more than two decades. He is now planning to retire.
"I’ve only been with AK for 21 years, which is not a very long career, compared to some," said Griffith, of Ashland. "Before starting to work at AK I wondered how the plant continued to operate after the work force was reduced in the early 90s....(we) had some had to transfer to Middletown. After I started at AK in 1998 I soon realized why the plant had continued to operate. It was because of the people working there, both hourly and salary.
"They continued to adapt and do what was necessary to make the plant successful as the work force basically turned over in the early 2000s," Griffith said. "The next generation continued the same commitment to make the plant successful. What is happening now is not a reflection of the quality of the work force."
Most of the operations at the plant including the blast furnace had been idle since Dec. 15, 2015, but AK in Ashland continued to operate a single hot dip galvanizing coating line. AK Steel, company plans for production to continue as normal until the end of October. The remaining workers after the first round of layoffs will clear out the plant and prepare the equipment to be moved to other AK Steel plants.
Kilgore expects AK Steel will be closed by Dec. 31. The closure comes despite tariffs from President Donald Trump's administration on foreign steel. The Los Angeles Times reported in July that the tariffs have sped up the decline of some legacy steel mills that utilize blast furnaces as other producers using cheaper to run electric arc furnaces have expanded AK Steel told the Times additional capacity is expected to further pressure imports.
The company said at the time of the announced closure AK Steel planned to increase its operating efficiency and lower its costs by completing the shutdown of the blast furnace and steelmaking operations. The company said it would work with its customers to transition products coated at Ashland Works to other suitable AK operations within the United States sometime this year. Those actions are expected to result in $40 million in annual savings.
AK Steel said the following:
"The Company is finalizing transition plans for those employees interested in relocating to its other facilities and is on pace to transition its remaining customer orders to its other coating lines on or before November 4."
Griffith is thankful for his opportunity to work at the plant.
"I will always count it as a blessing that I have been allowed the privilege of working with some of the finest people in the world. Salt of the earth people," Griffith said. "The people will be what I miss most. I am more fortunate than most because of my age I am at the end of my career. Armco/AK has provided a good living for a lot of families in this area (and) helped educate a lot of children. (I’m) sad to see it end. Hopefully those who need to continue to work will be able to find work here locally and not have to leave the area."
The company plans for production to continue as normal until the end of October. The remaining workers after the first round of layoffs will clear out the plant and prepare the equipment to be moved to other AK Steel plants.
Kilgore expects AK Steel will be closed by Dec. 31.
Tim Gibbs, executive director of the Ashland Alliance, said the news is a “terrible, terrible day for all the families impacted.” He expressed his sympathies for the families.
To many in Ashland the closing of the Ashland Works facility at this point represents the end of an era. Mayor Steve Gilmore said “Armco — and that’s what most of us around here still know it as — is what raised me. My dad worked there for 28 years. Most of my friends were Armco kids. It just did an unbelievable job providing great employment for the middle class. It’s something that’s hard to take.”
Gibbs said a rapid-response team is going to work on trying to find assistance for those displaced. Some who will be receiving notices might have a chance for work at another AK facility, such as Dearborn, Michigan, and Middletown, Ohio. Still others are expected to be able to enter into the company’s retirement system.