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Nearly 1,500 well-paid industrial workers in Northwest Indiana are out of work, or may be soon.

The import-battered steel industry, which never really emerged from the Great Recession, decided to idle mills in East Chicago. As many as 370 steelworkers could be laid off indefinitely starting in March, and another 300 steel jobs could be permanently lost, though the displaced workers could be transferred to other ArcelorMittal facilities. 

Then a national strike over safety concerns and staffing levels reached the BP Whiting Refinery in Whiting. About 1,100 oil workers, who earn an average of $82,000 annually, are scrimping and living off savings instead of out spending money at local restaurants and stores.

"In Northwest Indiana, you'll run into union members in every restaurant, bar and bowling alley," United Steelworkers Local 7-1 President Dave Danko said.

Picketing refinery workers do have a strike fund, and have been getting donations from the community, such as of food and clothes, Danko said. Some have taken part-time jobs. But they have had to make sacrifices on their lifestyles so they can keep paying utility and mortgage bills.

Lost wages will trickle down to other businesses throughout the area, ranging from eateries to car dealerships, said Micah Pollak, an assistant professor of economics at Indiana University Northwest.

While the number of jobs is relatively small compared to the overall workforce in Northwest Indiana, they are some of the best-paid employees in the region.

"These are good-paying jobs, so we will have a loss of people able to spend," he said.

"They will tend not to spend the money they would have, such as on a new car or a nice meal out at a higher-end restaurant."

The impact of idling mills like U.S. Steel's East Chicago Tin and ArcelorMittal's Indiana Harbor Long Carbon extends beyond just union workers, United Steelworkers District 7 Director Mike Millsap said. Such facilities also employ vendors and contractors -- along with supporting a number of interrelated businesses. 

"When the steel industry struggles, it has a downward impact on all of Northwest Indiana," he said.

"There are less taxes being paid. There's less income for the cities. Businesses hurt because people have less money to spend. It has on an effect on many other jobs in the community. A lot of jobs depend on those facilities."

But the region's steel industry isn't still the titan that once drew immigrants from all over the world, back when a single mill employed 30,000 workers. As automation has increased, international competition has ratcheted up, and the number of steelmakers has shrunk. Employment in the sector has plunged by about a third – roughly 8,700 jobs – since 2000. 

"We are used to hearing in this region there will be fewer jobs in the steel industry," Pollak said. "If this were wholly unexpected it would be more of an emotional and psychological shock. But we expect this with steel jobs. We know we won't have as many as we did."

The region's overall employment picture is rosier. Northwest Indiana's workforce increased by 11,000 people between January and November last year, so the number of local jobs has been growing despite the travails of heavy industry.

Northwest Indiana was, however, built on steel, and its identity is still linked to heavy manufacturing. So there's a symbolic toll.

"Fortunately, the steel layoffs are not the hit to our economy they once were, since it such a downsized industry," said Bill McCabe, broker-owner of Century 21 Executive Realty in Schererville. "But it does work on people's minds as they read about it and the strike."


Business Reporter

Joseph S. Pete is a Lisagor Award-winning business reporter who covers steel, industry, unions, the ports, retail, banking and more. The Indiana University grad has been with The Times since 2013 and blogs about craft beer, culture and the military.