By Brad Edwards and Paige TortorelliBy Brad Edwards

HEBRON, Ind. (CBS) — Twenty-nine million – that is the number of American workers now not working, getting unemployment, and having lost livelihoods – largely because of the pandemic.

Christian Peters of Hebron, Ind., is one of the 29 million. Peters, 39, is an American worker – well, he was.

“It was wrong – and I never thought that they would do that to me,” Peters said, “and I just wanted people to know…”

Peters emailed CBS 2 Investigator Brad Edwards: “I’m a disabled veteran of the Iraq War. My disabilities have never affected my work and I never complained.”

And he’s not now either. A 3rd Class Petty Officer, Peters has soldiered his whole life. In Iraq, he was on the helicopter squadron.

He served and came home.

“I never thought pf doing anything besides working at the steel mills,” Peters said. “You know, it’s kind of in my blood.”

He’s like many in the Region in Northwest Indiana, including his dad and granddad. The Peters do steel.

“My family’s worked in the steel mills without even a gap for generations,” Peters said.

He worked for ArcelorMittal, the world’s leading steel and mining company. Our cameras toured the plant in East Chicago in 2017.

Peters worked in nearby Burns Harbor. That’s worked – past tense.

“I’m just like embarrassed, you know?” Peters said.

ArcelorMittal fired Peters, or in their words, put him in the “reduction in force program.”

“I just felt wronged and that I received kind of a bad deal,” Peters said.

Peters served in the U.S. Navy from 2002 to 2007, and he has the paperwork, photos, and awards to prove it – the service, the VA benefits from the service-related back injury, a bad back, and add years of laboring in steel-toed boots.

“The pain was bringing a grown man to tears,” Peters said.

So he had scheduled surgery for Aug. 27.

“So when I did heal up, my quality of life would be better,” Peters said.

Peters had the surgery that day. At war with a bad back for more than a decade, he is battling back.

But it was before that surgery – just three weeks prior on Aug. 7, when Peters said he “received an odd phone call” from a company with which he was not familiar.

It was an outplacement firm, offering job search help.

“I was really confused. I didn’t know what was going on,” Peters said, “and my stomach kind of sank.”

He said the caller hung up.

Peters texted his boss: “‘You guys are still going to need me, right? There’s going to be a place for me?’ and he instantly responded, you know, back, ‘Yes.’”

Yet on Aug. 20, a week before the surgery came a FedEx delivery notification. Peters texted the boss man again, and said his boss never responded this time.

FedEx delivered word of ArcelorMittal’s “reduction in force program.”

“This was so crazy what was happening,” Peters said.

ArcelorMittal does not get a lot of good PR:

• In August 2019, a toxic chemical spill killed thousands of fish in the Little Calumet River.

• In East Chicago this summer, an employee died in a work-related injury.

There is risk, and danger, in being the blue-collar background of America.

“I had always been proud to work there,” Peters said.

And they were proud to sell him.

“They want people to know that they employ veterans,” Peters said.

The company twice boasted about him on its website. In 2018, a story titled, “Proud Papa gives students an inspirational lesson in steelmaking,” featured a photo of Peters and his son, and an entire class. It ended by thanking Peters for “inspir(ing) the next generation of leaders in our industry.”

In 2019, ArcelorMittal saluted Peters for Veterans Day.

The Mittal in the company’s name is Lakshmi Mittal. According to Forbes, he is worth more than $9 billion.

Mittal lives in Kensington Palace Gardens in London, in a mansion he bought for nine figures 15 years ago that is decorated with marble taken from the same quarry that supplied the Taj Mahal. His house is known as the “Taj Mittal.”

It is far from a garage in Hebron, Indiana, where Peters enjoys a pull off a stogie. His future is as concrete as a puff in the wind.

Peters’ wife is his rock, and his walker is now his sidekick. And his kids? He didn’t have the heart to tell them right away.

“The decisions that some of these companies are making,” Peters said before he trailed off in tears.

Those decisions are felt by real mean in USA T-shirts in Hebron, Indiana.

An ArcelorMittal spokesperson blames the job cuts last month on the pandemic.

Workers like peters are eligible for severance and health care benefits, but Peters has not yet taken them. For him, it’s personal and more about principle.

How many jobs did the steel giant slash? They would not tell us. But through public documents, we know it was north of 1,000 in the Midwest alone.

 

 

Brad Edwards