RAVENSWOOD - About 50 retirees from Century Aluminum's Ravenswood plant hit the picket lines Thursday morning to tell the company they will not back down in their fight to have their health care benefits reinstated.
The picket was supposed to mark the last day of health care benefits for the company's early retirees - those between the ages of 55 and 65.
However, in a last-minute move, the company agreed to temporarily cover health care costs for those retirees.
In February 2009, the company closed its Jackson County aluminum smelter, which was a cornerstone of the local economy for more than 50 years. As a result, 651 people lost their jobs.
Early last year, the company told retirees 65 and older it would no longer cover the health care benefits that had been negotiated under a contract with the United Steelworkers Union. Later in the year, the company told early retirees they, too, would lose their coverage.
Coverage ended Jan. 1, and the company has been covering the retirees' costs of continuing their coverage under the federal law known as COBRA since then. However, that coverage was set to end today.
But the company informed retirees by mail early this week of its decision to tap into funds granted last year under a federal program designed to extend benefits for early retirees.
Last fall, Century was approved for $458,000 worth of assistance under the $5 billion federal Early Retiree Reinsurance Program. However, the company said last fall that the program was not comprehensive enough in its reimbursement rates and it decided at the time not to pursue the program.
U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., has been critical of the company, urging federal regulators to pressure the company into fulfilling its requirements.
The company intends to use the federal funds as long as they last, company spokesman Michael Dildine said Thursday.
"All ERRP funds will be used to reimburse plan participants premium contributions and other out-of-pocket expenses," Dildine said.
"Based on current projections, it appears that ERRP funding will allow us to extend COBRA reimbursements to West Virginia retirees (who participate in COBRA) for less than two months before the funds are exhausted."
Karen Gorrell, a 61-year-old spouse of a retiree, has been leading the retirees' protest since the company announced the benefit cut. She said at Thursday's picket the extension amounts to "a Band-Aid on a hemorrhage."
But she said it could be a sign the company has changed direction.
"It was a little late in the game, but the company has decided to pull that $458,000 out of their pocket and use it as it was intended," she said. "Hopefully, it's just a baby step toward bigger things."
She's still hoping for a full reinstatement of benefits.
Many at Thursday's picket were older than 65 and said even though they are eligible for Medicare, that's not the point.
"We were promised full benefits for life at 100 percent," said Jim Weltner, 70.
"I worked 39 years, two months and 19 days for this," said Coy Wade, 80, who still remembers his first day at the plant. He started in the inspection and loading department on March 12, 1957.
"The politicians think that because we're on Medicare, we've got it made," said 73-year-old retiree Larry Williams.
The retirees said payments for supplemental health coverage, prescription drug coverage and doctor co-pays are swallowing their pension checks at a time when they're also having to deal with the rising costs of food, gasoline and utility bills.
Ravenswood resident Adrian McCoy, 71, worked at the plant for 38 years and 11 months between 1963 and 2002. Since 1979, he's been dealing with a blood disorder called polycythemia vera. He used to have blood-letting treatments every so often to thin his blood.
Just as the company was informing retirees they would be losing coverage, McCoy's disorder worsened. He now has to have a $5,000 shot every week to keep his hemoglobin counts down.
"Right when I needed this insurance is when they canceled it," McCoy said. "They told me when I retired it was guaranteed.
"I end up paying around $14,000 a year of actual out-of-pocket money now."
Absent from Thursday's picket line was 59-year-old Bryce Turner, a retiree suffering from leukemia who had just finished a five-week round of chemotherapy at the Cleveland Clinic.
Turner was there in spirit, however, as his fellow retirees waved signs with his picture on them.
He can't get new insurance now because of his condition, and his COBRA payment would be $1,103 a month, he said from his home Thursday.
By contrast, his first seven weeks of chemotherapy ran $250,000.
While he's happy to hear that the company has extended his early retiree benefits for at least another month, he said he wants the company to live up to the promise it made when he retired.
"Be a person of your word," he said Thursday afternoon.
And he's optimistic that will happen.
"A, I'm not a worrier. B, I've got a strong faith in God and a very supportive church, and all along I've just felt like all or part of this would be taken care of," he said.
BOB WOJCIESZAK/DAILY MAIL PHOTOS
Retired Century Aluminum workers took to company grounds in Ravenswood Thursday to protest the companyís decision to cut off their health care benefits.
Century Aluminum retirees Jim Weltner and Earl Poorman, front center, were among the picketers at the plant.
Retired Century Aluminum workers Adrian McCoy, front, and Coy Wade also took part in the protest. The company has decided to temporarily return retirement benefits to some retirees, but the former workers said itís not enough.
Contact writer Jared Hunt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5148.
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