No severance pay or benefits for PES refinery workers; next round of layoffs Friday

Friday will be the last day for union workers at the fire-damaged Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery, except for 83 who will stay on.

Winds carry a cloud of black smoke from a flare at PES refinery. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Winds carry a cloud of black smoke from a flare at PES refinery. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The union workers laid off by the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery won’t get severance pay or extended medical benefits after Sunday. That’s according to a collective-bargaining agreement union leaders reached with the company on Wednesday.

Employees at the South Philadelphia refinery, which has been closed since a fire broke out in its alkylation unit in June, were told about the terms of the agreement during a meeting Thursday afternoon.

“There’s no severance pay. The company is calling it a ‘transition pay.’ It equates for about two weeks pay, no benefits,” said Ryan O’Callaghan, president of United Steelworkers Local 10-1, which represents about 640 employees who worked at the facility.

Yet O’Callaghan is not calling the negotiation a failure. Labor leaders got the company to agree to keep 83 employees on after Sunday, which was supposed to be the last day for everyone.

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“We got the best deal we could under the circumstances. Our members are not happy that they’re losing their jobs, but they’re happy we maintain a presence at the refinery. And we look forward to a new and responsible party taking over the operation,” O’Callaghan said.

About 450 union workers have been laid off since last Thursday. According to documents filed in the company’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings, the refinery employed about 950 workers, full or part or time.

Friday is now the last day for the workers that remain, with the exception of the 83 selected to stay. Some of those who were already laid off could be recalled to be part of that group, O’Callaghan said.

Alex Clowes, an operator working at the refinery for the last 29 years, said employees are happy to know that qualified workers will stay at the facility. He said the company originally “just wanted management in there, and those people are not qualified.”

“You need to have qualified people because we know what’s the process of the units, what’s in the pipes, valving, the systems … If you have somebody in there opening and closing things and they don’t know what they are —  it’s dangerous,” Clowes said.

The employees remaining at the refinery will work in different units and their assignments, according to the contract, will include neutralizing the remaining hydrofluoric acid, and completing the investigation of the fire and explosion on June 21.

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