KEEWATIN, MINN. – When the first layoff notices went out across the Iron Range last spring, workers anxiously waited for the callback. When it didn't come, they waited for the Legislature to call a special session to extend unemployment benefits. That didn't happen either.
In the end, time ran out. So did the benefits.
"It's humbling," said Douglas Whitney, a father of three from Hibbing who lost his job as a millwright at U.S. Steel's Keetac plant in October and saw his last unemployment check weeks ago. "It's not even living payday 'til payday. It's living payday 'til a week 'til payday. The last thing an Iron Ranger wants is to ask for help."
But the Iron Range is asking now.
Come Tuesday, when the Legislature returns to work, extending a helping hand to the Iron Range is expected to be at the top of its agenda. Gov. Mark Dayton had pushed for a special session, but while both parties supported the call for an additional 26 weeks of unemployment benefits for miners, partisan bickering and questions about the timing and agenda of a special session derailed the proposal.
There are 2,111 miners out of work on the Range right now, according to the latest estimate by the Minnesota Office of Employment and Economic Development, and another 1,514 workers who have lost their jobs in mining support industries.
"It kind of feels like we're political pawns," said Whitney, who has spent 26 of his 48 years working the mines. "It's hard. I'd like to see [state lawmakers] try to make it on no income, especially when it's the middle of winter when you have to heat your house and you've got kids in school, kids ready to head off to college."
Little bits of help
Even when the unemployment checks were still coming in, they were a fraction of the salary Whitney was earning at the mine. Family, friends and the community have stepped in to help.
As seven of the 11 mining operations on the Range were idled one after another last year, the United Way of Northeastern Minnesota launched a crisis fund to help miners and their families pay bills. Whitney's credit union reached out to tell him he could skip four payments, January through April. He'll run up interest, but he won't face penalties.
"I called them and told them, 'My unemployment has run out.' And they said, 'Oh yeah, we've been watching the news and reading the paper. We see they didn't go into a special session to help you guys,' " he said.
Whitney's youngest daughter graduates from high school this spring. "I told her, 'Don't expect too much for a graduation party,' " he said. She's been accepted to St. Scholastica in Duluth, where she plans to study nursing. "We're hoping for a lot of scholarships."
Meanwhile, her father makes the rounds, searching for work, dropping off applications. There isn't much out there, and there's no work that matches the salary and benefits of mining.
The rest of the time, the days drag by. The only thing worse than the worry and uncertainty that comes with unemployment is the boredom.
"There's not a lot to do on the Iron Range other than hunt and fish and if you don't have any money, it's hard to even do that," Whitney said. "It's a lot of sitting around and waiting for something to turn a corner."
'Everything takes a hit'
The downturn in the steel industry has rippled across every corner of the Iron Range, spreading the pain of the layoffs to the businesses that serve the miners and depend on their paychecks.
The workers who used to shop at local stores now stop by instead to drop off resumes. Miners who once donated to charities and food pantries are now turning to them for help. At a department store in Virginia, where the unemployment rate topped 8.6 percent, more than double the rest of the state, the shelves are stocked with rows of new work boots, boots that won't be sold until the miners return.
"Everything takes a hit. Anybody who sits there and tells you their business is doing good during a downturn in the mining industry is lying," said Doug Ellis, owner of Virginia Surplus, a department store where shoppers can buy anything from guns to work boots. More guns than boots, these days.
In the 25 years that Ellis has run his shop, he's weathered at least three major downturns in the steel industry.
"Every one is bad, just some are worse than others," he said. "I look at them like little [Hurricane] Katrinas. They come through and we all batten down the hatches. We don't fold up our tents and go home. They hit us pretty hard and then we pick up the pieces after it's over and rebuild and go on."
Life goes on as long as the workers stay on the Range, but the downturn makes it harder to keep them there.
Father and son Jon and Derek Carter lost their jobs at U.S. Steel's Keetac plant in May. They moved back home to Brainerd, searching for work, only to find that jobs there were more scarce than in the Iron Range communities they left — the unemployment rate in Brainerd topped 10.9 percent in December.
As of last week, they were still searching. They've worked a few short-term jobs, mostly out of town. Jon Carter, who spent two years as an equipment operator down in the pit at Keetac, helped build a wind farm in North Dakota. Derek Carter, who took a job in mine operations just one year before the layoffs because he was tired of traveling for work and eager to put down roots, is planning to sign up for classes in the fall to retrain as an industrial electrician.
Even then, he figures he'll have to move, either down to the Cities or out of state, to find work.
The jobs Derek Carter, who also is trained as a welder, hears about around Brainerd pay about half what he was earning at the mine. The last of his unemployment benefits ran out around December.
"It's a good thing we hunt and fish," he said with a chuckle. "Grocerywise, all we need is milk and bread."
What's happening to the Iron Range workers and their communities is "a shameful thing," said Jon Carter, 51.
"There are good, hardworking people up there. Don't give up on us," said Carter, who is preparing to head out on the road again in search of employment. Like his son, he had hoped mine work would be a stable career that would let him settle in one place. Now, he's waiting for a call to Oklahoma, to work on another wind farm.
"I love the people up there," he said of the Iron Range. "I wish I could be up there living yet."
A sense of hope
When times are good and the steel industry is booming, Iron Rangers brace for a downturn. When the steel industry goes bust, they wait for the jobs and the good times to return.
Even now, tough as the past year has been, there is a sense of hope.
"I'm getting pretty optimistic," said Dan Kelly, owner of the only gas station in Keewatin.
The line of Kelly's customers used to spill out the door of his Sinclair station every morning — workers fueling up their cars with gas, and their stomachs with coffee and snacks, before their shift at the Keetac plant down the road. Those lines vanished with the first round of layoffs last spring. Kelly, born and bred in Keewatin, reacted by cutting expenses, cutting back on the merchandise on his shelves and scanning the news for some sign that better times might be ahead.
"I keep hearing that by the end of the year, things might turn around. Late July. September," Kelly said. "I'm hopeful that things will turn around. They always do."
If spring comes and goes without a call back to the mine, Whitney might head back to school. The mines are all he's known since 1990, but he's thinking about trying something new — like nursing. He and his daughter might end up hitting the books together.
"Starting a new career at my age would be kind of scary," he said. "But there are opportunities out there. … It could be a whole new ballgame."