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PES refinery workers face difficult choices as layoffs loom

  • Ximena Conde/WHYY
Philadelphia Energy Solutions workers leave the South Philly plant in June 2019, after a devastating fire at the plant, which  employed about 1,000 people.

Ximena Conde / WHYY

Philadelphia Energy Solutions workers leave the South Philly plant in June 2019, after a devastating fire at the plant, which employed about 1,000 people.

Several days after the largest oil refinery on the East Coast announced it would close, there’s little information Ryan O’Callaghan, president of the United Steelworkers Local 10-1, can give his almost 640 union members who are still reporting for work.

According to O’Callaghan, communication between Philadelphia Energy Solutions leaders and the union has been sparse since the company announced Wednesday it would shut down the refinery— less than a week after a fire destroyed one of its units.

“All we know is that as of July 12, we will be terminated,” O’Callaghan said.

The union will begin the process of bargaining with PES for severance pay and other benefits on Wednesday.

One of the few things O’Callaghan can say with certainty is that if someone doesn’t buy the refinery — a hope he and others are holding onto — the more than 1,000 refinery employees losing their jobs will be entering a tight job market, and will face difficult choices about their futures.

“This is a specialty job,” echoed Shaina Marsden, an operator at the refinery for five years. “There are a lot of jobs, but they’re not right here in South Philly … This one was it.”

There are some 1,500 oil refinery jobs in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware — the bulk of them based in South Philly.

The remaining chunk of refinery lab technician, mechanic, and operator jobs are in the Gulf Coast and Midwest, according to O’Callaghan.

Marsden said those jobs would take her far from her family and she’s not sure whether she’d pursue a new profession or leave her life in Philadelphia behind in order to stay in the industry. Marsden, 30, said she expected to work at PES until retirement.

She still doesn’t see why the refinery has to close.

Only one of the refinery’s units suffered extensive damage due to the fire — there are 29 more.

“There’s 29 units that still can run,” she said. “There should be no reason why this place is shutting down and so many people are now out of a job.”

Marson is not the only one who feels this way. O’Callaghan worries the company is “cashing in the chips and walking out the gate with maybe the insurance money.”

Last Friday, two workers filed a federal lawsuit claiming they weren’t given enough notice or severance pay as required by the WARN Act when more than 100 employees are laid off.

There are separate concerns that the refinery is shutting down operations too quickly.

“An oil refinery just can’t hit stop, it has to come down slow,” said O’Callaghan, noting PES is only expected to operate for another two weeks. “It has to come down the right way.”

When Sunoco shut down its Marcus Hook refinery in 2011, O’Callaghan said it took months to idle operations.

He suspects the refinery would have to keep employees after July 12, but he hasn’t heard of any plans to keep them past that date. He’s requested a step-by step outline of how units will be safely shut down.

PES did not respond to a request for comment.

While O’Callaghan tries to get his members as many benefits as he can in the layoff process, he has his own family’s life to consider.

His three children are older, but his youngest daughter was looking at colleges as recently as last week and at 47, O’Callaghan has a long way until retirement.

He said at least two of his union members recently bought homes and had new babies.

For O’Callaghan, the idea that these workers can retrain to work in another industry, as suggested by some environmental advocates, feels misguided and out of touch.

Almost half of O’Callaghan’s union members are more than 50 years old.

“You take a 58 year-old-guy or gal who was a mechanic at the refinery, what are you going to retrain them to do?” O’Callaghan asked, adding he’s heard almost no suggestions about what these other jobs might be.

O’Callaghan said he feels the idea of retraining is an empty talking point from politicians “just washing their hands of the situation.”

He’s heard environmental advocates suggest creating a solar or wind farm on the 1,400 acres occupied by the refinery, which he said doesn’t help his members too much.

“There’ll be jobs building the solar panels, but after they’re built, what then?” O’Callaghan said.

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