Newport News shipyard union holds food distribution to help workers who lost jobs

Hugh Lessig
Contact Reporterhlessig@dailypress.com
Steelworkers distribute food at Newport News

Donald Huffman recently lost his job at Newport News Shipbuilding, but on Wednesday he looked like a grocery shopper with money to spend.

As he prepared to leave the union hall at United Steelworkers Local 8888, his enthusiasm was evident.

"Carrots, frozen meat, there's some — let's see what this is — hot dogs and hamburger maybe? There's some fruit and potatoes. And I can smell the onions," he said.

Huffman, a deck electrician, was among dozens of laid-off workers who drove to the union hall on Huntington Avenue for a food distribution coordinated by the steelworkers and the Virginia Peninsula Food Bank. Nearly 740 shipyard workers lost their jobs Feb. 3 because of a temporary but significant drop in work for the only builder of Navy aircraft carriers.

The food drive brought together union members, food bank officials and sailors from the aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford. They set up tables behind the union hall, and the laid-off workers drove by with their windows down. The volunteers did the rest.

Chief Petty Officer Jorge Ramirez said the sailors owed a debt to the people who helped assemble their next-generation warship, which will be commissioned later this year.

"A lot of these shipyard workers were working on the ship," Ramirez said. "This is a great event because it's benefiting the people who helped us out."

Arnold Outlaw, president of the union local, said roughly 30 people stopped by in the first two hours and more were expected. It was conducted in the shadow of the Newport News shipyard, a division of Huntington Ingalls Industries.

"I believe you could feed a family of four for a whole week on the food they're giving out," Outlaw said. "That's a wonderful thing for me to watch."

The Virginia Peninsula Food Bank has a mobile pantry that distributes food on a regular basis. Wednesday's event was unique, given the scale of the layoffs, said Michele E. Benson, chief development officer for the food bank.

"This is a perfect example of why we have food banks," she said. "There are a lot of misconceptions that we only feed the homeless or groups that aren't out working. But we're also helping working people who are going through transitions in their life — and a layoff is a transition."

Some are weathering that transition better than others.

Chris Lee, a marine electrician, said he was trying to stretch the budget of his family, which includes three children aged 17, 7 and 3.

"I haven't received unemployment yet, so I'm still waiting on that," he said. "This really takes the stress off."

Keith Giles, an insulator, had worked at the shipyard for two years before getting a layoff notice.

"I had to put a lot of stuff on pause," he said. "I had a child. I had to think about where I was getting my money from. It's mind blowing at first, but once you know you're getting laid off, you try to set yourself up."

Giles said he doesn't have any immediate job prospects. Huffman is more optimistic. He's been in contact with Ingalls Shipbuilding in Pascagoula, Miss., the sister shipyard of Newport News, about potential openings. Ingalls builds Navy destroyers and amphibious warships and Coast Guard cutters.

"Hopefully," he said, crossing his fingers, when asked if he would land a job.

Huffman worked at Newport News for a little over three years, and losing his job was tough.

"After being there that long, you're like family," he said.

But at least he'll have food on the table for the immediate future, with plenty of bags and packages to take home.

"I mean, a lot of this stuff I didn't expect," he said.

Lessig can be reached by phone at 757-247-7821.

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