Effort to assist laid off miners continues

Project empire

MARQUETTE — The world changed for hundreds of Cliffs Natural Resources employees in August 2016 when the Empire Mine went into indefinite idle.

The economic impact of the closure prompted Project Empire, a state initiative announced by Gov. Rick Snyder during an August visit to the Upper Peninsula, to help displaced employees and communities affected by the shut down.

David Murray, deputy director of communications from the Michigan Talent and Economic Development Dept., said the effort, led by Michigan Economic Development Corp., has resulted in several programs geared toward assisting workers displaced by the indefinite idle.

“Project Empire work continues along two tracks: helping the affected miners and their families, and helping the affected communities grow stronger economically over the long term,” Murray said. “The workers and their families are the primary focus at this time, because we want them to be able to find new opportunities. We know this is a difficult time for them, and we want to make sure they get the help they need.”

The newest development in the effort is Project Empire Day, set for April 19 at the Michigan Works! Service Center in Marquette, in order to offer additional services to displaced workers.

“We are working to incorporate a variety of state agencies so people can get assistance in a wide variety of state services,” Murray said. “Such as the Department of Health and Human Services for programs including child care, insurance, and food assistance.”

It was estimated early in April 2016 that more than 400 workers would be displaced by the indefinite idle of the mine, but final numbers indicate that 307 employees were affected by the shut down, Cliffs Director of Corporate Communications Pat Persico said.

“The number of employees impacted by the idle was less than originally anticipated as a result of many factors,” Persico said. “Including retirements, voluntary separations and concerted efforts to find employment opportunities at other Cliffs’ sites.”

In addition, Murray said the state has partnered with the Lake Superior Community Partnership for the Match UP digital portal, a place where the miners can post resumes and see job openings. The portal also allows employers to reach out to the affected miners if they see a good fit.

“At this point, just under 20 miners have posted resumes, so we are working with LSCP to spread the word about this resource and help more employees take advantage of it,” Murray said. “Across Michigan, we are hearing about a talent gap and companies being unable to fill openings,” Murray said. “We know the affected miners are hard-working people with skills that could transfer to other industries, and in some cases the challenge is connecting them with the companies that are hiring.”

Michigan Works! Executive Director Robert Micheau said his organization provided rapid response services following the Empire Mine indefinite idle by filing a Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act letter of a mass layoff.

Because the job losses can be tied to unfair trade practices by countries like China and India that negatively affected the steel industry, Cliffs employees were eligible for aid under the Trade Adjustment Assistance Reauthorization Act of 2015.

TAA benefits include providing displaced workers up to 130 weeks of training, employment and case management services, a relocation allowance for reimbursement for costs incurred to relocate to employment outside of the workers’ commuting area, and a job search allowance that reimburses for costs of seeking employment outside of the workers’ commuting area.

The program includes Trade Readjustment Allowances, which is weekly income support for up to two years to workers involved in the TAA program who have exhausted their unemployment insurance.

Murray said about 40 miners are enrolled in the TAA training programs.

For Vince Schuhknecht, who was employed by Cliffs Natural Resources as an electrician, the Project Empire initiative did not provide much help, according to his wife Dawn.

“For Vince, for Project Empire, they really didn’t do anything,” Schuhknecht said.

Dawn, the former city of Negaunee mayor, said her husband along with 21 other individuals who were employed as electricians by Cliffs were seeking the opportunity to obtain a state electrician’s license.

In order to take the state electrician’s licensing examination, an individual must complete 8,000 hours of practical work experience over four years.

Schuhknecht said as it stands now, none of the hours her husband, or any of the other electricians at the mines, completed count toward the 8,000 hours needed for the state exam.

Schuhknecht said her husband obtained a job at the Louisiana Pacific Corp. Lumber plant in Newberry.

“Vince has a job out at LP and they have a program where you can work your way toward licensing,” Schuhknecht said. “It’s frustrating that the mine could have done the same thing that LP is doing. It’s wonderful, the opportunity that LP is giving him, but he has to start from scratch.”

Persico said Cliffs did what they could to provide documentation on the hours worked by the employees, but whether those hours qualify under state guidelines is not within the control of the company.

“At Cliffs we do not require our electricians to become master electricians,” Persico said. “In this particular situation, we as a company did provide all the information as far as the hours the employees worked. Whether or not that is sufficient based on state criteria is another matter.”

Murray said organizers of PE will continue to work on ways to help the electricians gain the credentials they are seeking, but it is an ongoing process.

“We know that the mining electricians have experience and skills, and we want them to continue using that expertise for jobs in the area,” Murray said. “There are state laws requiring documentation indicating that people seeing the licensing have worked under a master electrician. The challenge is that Cliffs did not require its electricians undergo direct supervision from a master electrician, following the rules in place for their particular circumstances in the mining industry.”

Micheau said although the initiative has not produced perfect results, there has been a measure of success for individual workers like Scott Stapleton who participated in Rapid Response events at Ronn Hall in Negaunee and the Michigan Works! office in Marquette in anticipation of the layoff last year.

Micheau said, like many of the employees, Stapleton filed for benefits via the Unemployment Insurance Agency and then met with the Michigan Works! Talent Team in the L’Anse office to research in-demand careers that matched his skills and interests.

Stapleton then identified a career path in welding that required additional training through the federal TAA program, Micheau said.

“Michigan Works! assisted him with researching local training centers that offered the specialized training he was looking for,” Micheau said. “Stapleton wanted to increase his employability by gaining welding certifications for in-demand local careers. Through this assistance Scott was able to enroll in Welding Certification Training at a local training center and maintain his residency in the U.P.”

Murray said PE organizers want to make people aware that the state’s mitalent.org website has nearly 100,000 job postings from across Michigan, in addition to state government jobs that are posted on governmentjobs.com/careers/Michigan.

Anyone needing help with these websites can visit a Michigan Works! office, Murray said.

Murray said organizers are in the preliminary stages of a study, which involves taking a longer look at the economic strength of the region.

The state is working with leaders in Ishpeming and Negaunee and Northern Michigan University’s Department of Earth, Environmental and Geographical Sciences on an in-depth study to identify successful examples in other states of economic diversification after a mine closing.

“That’s not to say we want to abandon the region’s proud history. But diversification would lessen the impact on the communities when closings occur and make them stronger overall,” Murray said.

Lisa Bowers can be reached at 906-486-4401. Her email address is lbowers@miningjournal.net.