Layoffs at PES refinery begin, as union argues for continued presence due to safety concerns
Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery in South Philadelphia. (Photo: Emma Lee/WHYY)
Layoffs began Thursday at the shuttered Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery in South Philadelphia, union sources have confirmed to WHYY News.
The layoffs had been scheduled for Aug. 25. They began more than a week early because certain areas of the refinery had been sufficiently shut down, and so the workers in those units were no longer needed.
Approximately 80 of the 640 union workers have been let go, according to Ryan O’Callaghan, president of United Steelworkers Local 10-1, as the refinery winds down operations after a fire on June 21 caused it to shut down.
The workers will be paid through Aug. 25, though as it stands that payment will be without severance. Health insurance benefits would also end on Aug. 25, though O’Callaghan said the union is still negotiating for both severance and benefits.
O’Callaghan said the layoffs would come in waves until everyone is terminated on the 25th. The union had requested a list of who would be laid off when, but O’Callaghan said workers were notified Wednesday around 5 p.m. that about 80 of them would be laid off Thursday.
“More disrespect to the workforce,” O’Callaghan said. “It’s very frustrating.”
PES did not immediately make a representative available to comment on the layoffs’ early start.
O’Callaghan said the company, which entered Chapter 11 bankruptcy on July 21, planned to replace union workers with a “caretaker group” of salaried management workers that would maintain the refinery as it shuts down.
But he added that there are still products in the tanks and lines, which, though minimal, require the expertise of trained union workers, and so the refinery should keep some union workers on the premises beyond Aug. 25.
“The units need to be safely idled, and the people they intend to have that done are not qualified,” he said.
In particular, O’Callaghan pointed to the reactors in some of the units, where if the “rare earth” catalyst is left to dry out, it could explode.
“We need trained USW workers who worked on those units to stay there. Not all of them, but there needs to be the trained operators there.”
The June 21 fire occurred in the refinery’s alkylation unit, where crude oil is turned into fuel through the use of a toxic catalyst known as hydrofluoric acid. Thirty-three thousand gallons of that acid is currently being neutralized on site before it can be discharged into a dedicated wastewater treatment plant. The union workers involved with that unit were not among the 80 let go Thursday.
The 335,000-barrel-per-day refinery was the largest and oldest on the East Coast. Initially, PES had said it would lay off union and non-union workers in mid-July, but it later extended the termination date to Aug. 25.
WHYY is the leading public media station serving the Philadelphia region, including Delaware, South Jersey and Pennsylvania. This story originally appeared on WHYY.org.