RAVENSWOOD - The retirees of Century Aluminum have accepted the deal that will restore some of their lost health benefits.
The retirees' approval Thursday is expected to open the way for the state to aid the company in restarting operations at the Ravenswood plant.
Around 400 retirees attended a meeting Thursday evening at Ravenswood Middle School where the vote was taken to accept a deal negotiated by the company and representatives of the union.
Karen Gorrell has helped fight for the lost benefits.
Gorrell said Century has agreed to pay at least $44 million over the next decade toward coverage. Retirees not yet eligible for Medicaid would pay premiums. Gorrell said benefits for older retirees are still being discussed.
Lindsey Berryhill, spokesman for Century Aluminum, said Thursday the company had no comment at this time.
Century closed its smelter in Ravenswood in 2009, laying off around 650 workers, and stopped health care coverage for retirees in 2010.
Retiree representatives have said the agreement will provide significant relief for each person affected by the termination of benefits. Many are now uninsured and financially burdened due to the loss of benefits, they said.
Company officials recently announced their intentions to reopen the site and said an agreement needed to be worked out with the retirees to help secure certain state aid.
The state might offer a tax break worth up to $20 million annually to help Century Aluminum restart its Jackson County smelter, but officials said any such aid depends on retirees approving the proposed deal over their health benefits.
The proposed aid could offset the Ravenswood plant's electricity costs. The credits would benefit the utility in exchange for it setting special, reduced rates for the plant that would be triggered by weak aluminum prices.
With the retirees approval of the proposal, state lawmakers are now expected to consider a tax break for Century today.
U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said the deal restores some of the retiree health care benefits and paves the way to restart plant operations and provide hundreds of jobs for the Mid-Ohio Valley.
"Since day one, I have stood with the people of Jackson County, and I will tell you there are few issues that have had as much of an impact on me as the collective effort to restore retiree health care and bring Century Aluminum back on line following the plant being idled in 2009," Rockefeller said. "Today's ratification means that retirees have finally received what they've long sought: to be treated fairly and with respect. That's what this fight was about. Today we are one step closer to a positive resolution."
U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said he was proud to represent a state with so much resilience where the people work together, stick together and we truly fight for every job.
''What happened (Thursday) is a real story of success not only for Ravenswood, but for our entire state,'' Manchin said. ''We have shown the rest of the country and the world that West Virginia has the best workforce and we can compete with anyone.
"Today, the people of Ravenswood are smiling and West Virginia is a brighter place. People have hope for the future, and they are enthusiastic. This means so much. Our people don't ask for too much only the opportunity to take care of themselves and their families," Manchin said.
"That is the hope that this agreement has brought. I hope the Century Aluminum story will continue to show people around the country what we can achieve if we are willing to come together and fight for what we believe in."