Minnesota’s iron ore giants this week said they will keep their mines and taconite plants open, even as anxious union workers are digesting new regulations because of the coronavirus pandemic and the news that U.S. auto factories, a key end market, are shutting down.
As of Wednesday, there were no confirmed Iron Range cases of COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus. But like the rest of Minnesota, schools, restaurants, bars, banks and other businesses are shutting down by the hour, causing strains to the support systems of Iron Range workers.
The taconite operations, like companies nationwide, have revised work, sick leave and other rules as they try to fend off the virus and stay in operation.
“We have dealt with other things like the slowdown of the market and that kind of stuff. But nobody’s had to deal with this kind of [virus] thing before,” said Chris Johnson, president of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 2705.
“And pretty soon the coronavirus is not going to be our only worry,” said the 13-year Hibbing Taconite employee. “The Big 3 automakers decided they are going to shut down. That is going to affect the steel industry. It’s going to be bad for awhile.”
The big taconite companies have issued new policies regarding illnesses, visitors and travel based on coronavirus worries as they try to fill current orders, with several orders ready for ships to pick them up in the next week.
Meanwhile, the companies and union are juggling several issues. They are trying to figure out school-age child-care solutions so working parents can stay on the job for as long as public schools stay closed.
Johnson said he and the 11 other union officers at Hibtac are also fielding 60 to 80 calls and texts each day from fearful workers who are over 60 or have underlying health issues — both high-risk groups for developing more acute cases of COVID-19.
“We are trying to deal with panicking employees who don’t want to be here,” Johnson said.
The union is talking with management twice a day. If the company ever decided to offer a voluntary furlough, probably 100 of his 613 union workers would jump, he said.
Leonard Petroskey, a nine-year Hibtac electrician who has battled diabetes for 31 years, said he would be one of them.
“The whole state is pretty much shut down and we are still here,” he said. “It makes me wonder are they putting profit in front of common sense. I certainly don’t want to get this [virus].”
But with two kids to support, he’s still showing up to the 700-worker factory.
Since Friday, United Taconite, Hibbing Taconite, Keetac, Minntac and the ArcelorMittal Minorca Mine on the Iron Range notified roughly 3,260 Minnesota union workers about their new coronavirus policies. Nonunion Northshore Mining in Silver Bay also received similar messages.
“Right now we don’t have any interruptions at our mine sites in Minnesota or any of our operations,” said Patricia Persico, spokeswoman for Cleveland-Cliffs, parent company of United Taconite, Hibtac and Northshore Mining.
Last week Cliffs started “a number of preventive measures” including limiting visitors to the Iron Range operations, letting some employees work from home and educating everyone about the virus.
And “we’re telling folks if they have symptoms then stay home,” Persico said.
U.S. Steel, which owns Keetac and Minntac, canceled nonessential business travel, limited outside visitors and implemented telephone or video conferences to conduct business in lieu of meetings, said spokeswoman Meghan Cox.
The company has yet to experience any U.S. supply chain issues. It is tracking all supplies and if needed has “contingency plans in place,” Cox said.
Local union leaders inside the taconite plants now speak with their national leaders twice a day as they attempt to hammer out new work rules for thousands of factory owners worried about a fast-spreading coronavirus pandemic that has sickened more than 240,000 people worldwide, including more than 89 Minnesotans and Americans in all 50 states.
The union and mines want clarity around the coronavirus and sick leave, vacation policies and day-care worries, said John Arbogast, USW District 11 staff representative from his office in Eveleth.
Discussions have made for long days that start at 5 a.m. and end at 9 p.m.
“Basically we are just trying to get ready for when [the virus] does happen here,” said Arbogast, who represents about 3,260 workers in five of the six taconite plants on the Range.
But many of the workers have a more immediate problem in finding child care for their school-age children.
“I think we have to figure it out pretty quickly,” said Kelsey Johnson, president of the Iron Mining Association of Minnesota (IMA), who has been fielding calls from parents.
Gov. Tim Walz’s decision to close public schools on Wednesday forced some to take vacation time, while others dashed to add their children onto day-care center waiting lists.
“Our [ore] factories are running 24 hours, seven days a week. You have this constant push to keep production high, but where do you put your kids when they need care?” Johnson said. “I think that all Range businesses are worried.”
Until the abrupt disruption being caused by effects of the pandemic, the taconite industry was holding its own.
This week, massive piles of iron taconite pellets sit on docks in Duluth ready to be loaded and shipped to steel customers along the Great Lakes.
The orders came even after November’s slump as shrunken demand from auto and aerospace industries prompted nearly 40 layoffs out of 1,630 union workers at Keetac and Minntac.
Vessels are scheduled to begin loading the ore Monday in Duluth, said Jayson Hron, spokesman for the Duluth Seaway Port Authority.
To the northeast in Silver Bay, Northshore Mining has a load of pellets ready to head out Saturday across Lake Superior, said the IMA’s Johnson.
All Minnesota ore producers shipped 19.7 million short tons of iron ore from the Duluth port last year, up 12.2% from the five-year average.
Staff writer Brooks Johnson contributed to this report.