Progress Rail

Steve Biars stands in front of the sign of his former employer, Progress Rail.

RACELAND Steve Biars, of Franklin Furnace, Ohio, thought that he had a good job. Biars had been working at Progress Rail Services (in the East Repair section) in Raceland since August 2018, a suitable amount of time for an employee to believe he or she had “settled in” at his or her place of employment.

At that point, most employees would be comfortable with their duties and have developed a good, productive routine. Most, understandably, would be looking toward the future and advancement along with pay raises, vacation days earned and other things a career has to offer.

Now, though, Biars is one of two dozen laid-off former Progress Rail employees.

Biars has a background in welding, and he said that for his Progress Rail position, the focus was mostly on hopper cars and jacket repair on tanker cars.

“It started out at $15 an hour, and once you got the welding certification, it added a dollar,” Biars said. “After you got in the skills program, you could add another 25 to 50 cents an hour a year.”

Biars said that, for the area, it was pretty good money. And it gave a person the idea that it was a good set-up, employment-wise.

“Going into the last week of employment, on the Friday before, they had given us skill packets,” Biars said. “They promoted a few people, and I was actually waiting on my promotion to come through the next week. That’s where I thought I was going when they called us up to the conference room the following Monday morning.”

But it wasn’t a promotion Biars was handed on the first day of the work week. He thought perhaps he had omitted some information, or verification was needed on the skill packet he had filled out less than 72 hours earlier. But there were no errors on his paperwork. Instead, Biars said that about half the employees, including himself, were summarily laid off.

The balance of the employees, he said he was told, though still working, would be laid off and the plant would close completely sometime in 2019. The news, Biars said, came as a total surprise to everyone.

“Just the week before they were talking about all the great plans they had for 2019,” Biars said. “We were told that Caterpillar (the parent company) was going to invest some more money and we were going to grow. They said it would be a slow process, but that we were here to stay. And they never gave us a reason to think otherwise, until it was too late.”

Biars said that he left a position at Special Metals in Huntington to take a position at Progress Rail because it was an hour closer to home. Now the opportunities left to him will involve traveling, leaving him farther from home on a more consistent basis.

Biars said that his fellow former employees are left in the same position. Several find it more difficult to travel.

“One guy I worked with is raising five kids by himself,” Biars said. “And another one has a kid with autism he is taking care of. Where does that leave them?”

Biars said that not only did the sudden layoff cause extreme problems for the now former employees of Progress Rail, but the hits keep coming. He said that the company inaccurately reported his working income, which caused delays in his being able to file for and collect unemployment.

And he said a lot of former employees experienced similar problems. Biars conceded that the employees were given a two-weeks-pay severance package — but the amounts on those were wrong as well. And some former employees still hadn’t received them.

“And our health benefits also ended the day we were laid off,” Biars said. “I understand that a company has to make money to stay in business, but I believe we deserve better than this.”

Phone calls made to Progress Rail were not returned.

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cromans@dailyindependent.com