Idled Iron Range miners facing tough times

Mining shovel
HibbTac in Hibbing remains cold and idled, despite expectations that the taconite mining industry is starting to emerge from a downturn.
MPR Photo/Bob Kelleher

Minnesota's taconite mining industry is starting to emerge from a downturn that closed every one of the mines on the Iron Range. But the rebound is slow to reach the towns of Hibbing and Keewatin, where taconite plants remain on extended shut-down.

At a food shelf just north of the downtown in Hibbing, a small crew of volunteers stuffed paper bags with groceries and baked goods.

Director Carol Voss said a lot of people have been coming in. They served more than 500 families in July - ten times the number from a decade ago.

"A lot of them are unemployed miners where their money is running out now; their unemployment is running out," Voss said. "It's just increasing, and if the mines don't go back soon, we're going to be hurting big time."

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Some mines are going back. Four of the state's six taconite mines are either producing again or have announced plans to restart in the coming weeks.

But so far, no such good news has been heard on the western Iron Range, where HibbTac in Hibbing and KeeTac in Keewatin both remain cold and idled. With a combined workforce of close to 1,000, that's a lot of missing paychecks.

Nancy Massich sees it at the Hibbing Salvation Army. At mid-afternoon the place is empty, but she's stunned how many are showing up for the evening meal and other free services.

Carol Voss
Carol Voss has run the Hibbing food shelf since 1996.
MPR Photo/Bob Kelleher

"This last month I saw 68 new families; 165 people who have never entered our doors for any kind of assistance before," Massich said.

Some collect unemployment, but for others, that's already run out, six months after the bottom dropped out.

"Those 68 new families were all people who have been laid off, anytime from October 1 of 2008 through right now," she said. "A lot of them were miners, but a lot of them were from companies that have either shut down or have reduced their hours dramatically."

The Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development found Hibbing had the state's highest unemployment at 18.7 percent in June - the latest available figures.

The root of the economic pain here is in iron mining, a notoriously volatile industry marked by deep downturns. Joe Ferris has seen it before in his 19 years in the industry.

Joe Ferris
Joe Ferris works in maintenance at KeeTac, with 19 years experience.
MPR Photo/Bob Kelleher

"We've been through it enough to know that you live within you means, and things could happen at any time," Ferris said. "So, you know, we don't drive brand new vehicles. We've lived in this house for ten years."

With his seniority, Ferris qualifies for a full year of unemployment, additional layoff pay from the company and full medical coverage. So he doesn't feel too squeezed right now. With time on his hands he painted the house this summer, but Ferris sees others who aren't doing as well.

"Some of the younger guys, they get on and they go out and buy a new car, a new truck, buy a house, and then all of the sudden you are unemployed, and that's when it starts to hurt," he said.

Dave Mickelson lives a couple of blocks away. Almost 50, he's not really one of the younger guys, but he only has 4 1/2 years in at KeeTac. Mickelson said the toughest part is the uncertainty.

David Mickelson
David Mickelson is an unemployed production worker at KeeTac in Keewatin, where he worked for over 4 years.
MPR Photo/Bob Kelleher

"It's not knowing when we're going back, and if we're going back," Mickelson said. "I believe we will, it's just don't know when. By the end of the year things could get tough."

His unemployment compensation covers the house and truck payments, but he's still feeling financially squeezed. He's cut his internet and his medical insurance ran out in June.

"You know I have certain medications that I had to quit taking, because I can't afford it," Mickelson said.

He's applied for extended insurance under the federal Cobra program. It just hasn't started yet.

And it's more than the miners. An Eveleth company, Tufco, provides the giant tires for massive mining trucks. President Dwight Day said his business plunged last fall.

Tufco, in Eveleth, is a mining tire supply company, offering tires, tire repair and service to the mining industry.
MPR Photo/Bob Kelleher

"We have nine full-time employees, so we're not a big company, and right now we're working with primarily two or three, and we're kind of doing a shared layoff amongst all of the employees," Day said. "So everybody works a few weeks and they're off for a few weeks."

Day worries his employees might move away to find new work.

"I don't want to lose any of these people, but I can't at the same time keep stringing everybody along in what we can do and can't do if there's no work to be done," he said.

Iron mining depends on demand for steel, and both Ford and General Motors have announced increased production of some car models. But it's yet to be seen if that will filter back any time soon to Hibbing and Keewatin, or whether the two local taconite mines will remain closed, as predicted, until spring of next year.