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Local 9423 president, schools officials react to Century curtailment

By C. Josh Givens

While it is early on following Century Aluminum’s announcement last week that it will curtail operations at the Hawesville Smelter by the end of August, local government and union officials are already considering the potential impacts to employees and families, and the community.

Century informed employees through a letter and WARN Act notice on Wednesday, June 22, that it plans to layoff 628 employees in two phases throughout the month of August.

Officials with the company have said they will retain about 20 employees at the site to keep the plant operational throughout the curtailment, which they expect to last 9-to-12 months. Century said the decision is based upon energy prices to run the facility, which are said to be triple the historical averages it has paid for electricity.

The Hawesville operation produces high-purity aluminum, which is used in the aerospace industry, national defense systems, and the International Space Station.

Century buys its power on the open market, and has pointed to rising energy prices domestically and globally, attributing the steep price increases to the ongoing war in Ukraine being waged by Russia.

Local 9423 president: ‘Product important for security’

United Steel Workers Local 9423 President Andy Meserve said while he was aware of the energy pricing increases to operate the plant, he did not expect the company to announce a closure.

Andy Meserve

“Things had been going very well at the plant,” Meserve said. “The company had made significant investments in equipment, updated a lot of things, and we had four pot lines running, with a full complement of workers, just as the company wanted. I had been following energy reports, but had no idea Century was considering something like this.”

Local 9423 represents 521 members, all at Hawesville, and all of those members are hourly employees. The average annual wage for workers is in the high-$60,000s, according to Meserve.

“These are good-paying jobs,” Meserve said. “Our members were coming from all over the region, some driving an hour or more to make good money. Hiring had been slow following the 2015 layoff, but we had starting seeing more applicants, and confidence in the market and the work we were doing had improved quite a bit.”

Meserve said he believes that if the market for purity aluminum stays strong – and energy prices return to a manageable level – he anticipates the smelting operation will resume.

“The product is important to security for this nation,” he said. “We already can’t produce enough for the needs of the United States. I’ve been in contact with the International (USW) every day for lobbying in Washington for national security reasons. This is a shock; the company was investing, our training program was up and going, we were getting the applicants we needed.”

Since the announcement, Meserve said workers with Kentucky state government have been at the plant, meeting with workers on how to preregister for unemployment benefits and what assistance might be available. As well, he continues to work to secure recall rights for Local 9423 members.

The current contract for members was ratified in April 2021, a five-year agreement which will expire in 2026.

School system prepares for revenue decrease

Hancock County Schools Chief Financial Officer Kara Eckles briefed the School Board Thursday on the potential impact to revenue the Century curtailment will have on the district’s finances. While she is confident the district can weather the lost revenue, she expressed concern for the families affected.

Kara Eckles

“The district will be fine,” Eckles said. “Our primary concern is with the community. It’s something that will touch nearly everyone in the county. The district is on good financial footing, so with good management of the situation, we should be fine.”

Eckles said the potential losses includes $190,000 annually in tangible/personal property taxes, which are taxes levied by the district on “anything not attached to the buildings” at Century.

“This would be things like inventory in warehouses, furniture, office equipment,” she said. The district’s tax rate on tangible/personal property is 72.9 per $100 of valuation.

The largest impact will be seen with the utility tax of three percent on electricity bills for the plant. The year-to-date total collected by the district is $221,000, though Eckles said the monthly figure had been trending upward.

She said the average monthly figure had been $14,000, though for April the figure was $47,000 and in May $69,000. “We have not received June yet, but I can see in our figures that they were seeing much higher utility bills,” Eckles said. “Our hope is that they do not close permanently and sell the property. We’ll be a little tighter with our purse strings, and make it through this.”

Robbie Asberry

Superintendent Robbie Asberry said the state’s SEEK funding – which is funding the district receives per pupil – has modifications built in which could assist if there is a significant drop in funding on the local level.

“We are fortunate that the majority of our funding is generated locally,” he said. “There are some districts in the state which receive most of their funding in SEEK funds. First and foremost, our hearts go out to the families. It’s a much bigger impact on the community than on our school district.”

Asberry said the system had several students and staff who have family members employed at Century.

“We are blessed in Hancock County to have all these industries, and to be diversified in what we have,” he said. “Most communities do not have what we have, industries which not only provide a livelihood, but also contribute so much through charitable means and public revenue.

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