“No one knows when that will happen,” said Ms. Loepker, who lives by herself in a four-bedroom home she bought in nearby Belleville, three blocks from a married sister. “The company tells us the end of March, but they don’t know either,” Ms. Loepker said. “The uncertainty has everyone fearful.”
Not since the 1980s has American steel production been as low as it is today. Those were the Rust Belt years when many steel companies were failing and imports of better quality, lower cost steel were rising.
Foreign producers no longer have an advantage over the refurbished American companies. Indeed, imports, which represent about 30 percent of all steel sales in the United States, also are hurting as customers disappear.
The industry, in response, is lobbying the Obama transition team for infrastructure projects that would require big amounts of steel. Mass transit systems are high on the list, and so is bridge repair.
“We are sharing with the president-elect’s transition team our thoughts in terms of the industry’s policy priorities,” said Nancy Gravatt, a spokeswoman for the American Iron and Steel Institute.
The Obama team has not yet revealed details of the president-elect’s soon-to-be-announced recovery plan other than to indicate that most of the package will probably go into infrastructure spending rather than tax breaks.
“If the president-elect really follows through, he’ll fund a lot of mass transit projects,” said Wilbur L. Ross Jr., the Wall Street deal maker who put together the steel conglomerate known as Arcelor Mittal USA. “All the big cities have these projects ready to go.”
The sharp slide in steel production has several causes. Construction and auto production have fallen sharply; between them, they account for 57 percent of the steel bought each year in the United States, according to the Iron and Steel Institute. Appliances, machinery and other electrical equipment account for an additional 13 percent, and the fall-off in production of these goods has also reduced steel orders.
Then there are the wholesalers, known in the steel industry as service centers. They buy in huge quantities from the mills, building up inventories and selling to customers like a construction company that needs I-beams to build a shopping center, or a manufacturer of auto parts in need of steel tubing.
Until recently, the inventories were bought on credit, and the service centers constantly replenished these stockpiles as steel was sold to end users. But now the service centers, unable to borrow money easily and reluctant to borrow anyway in these hard times, have stopped buying from the steel mills. They are selling off their inventories instead, raising cash in the process. It is a tactic that annoys Mr. DiMicco, the Nucor chief, no end.
“They don’t want to be without cash when they go into whatever the black hole is that is being created by the financial crisis,” he said, and faulted the nation’s lenders for collecting billions in government bailout money and then, in his view, refusing to lend it to the service centers on reasonable terms. “Credit completely dried up,” Mr. DiMicco said, “and it is still hard to get.”