Monday, August 14, 2017

Update: Not WARNing at V.C. Summer

June 9, 2017 photo of Summer construction
SCEG photo
Update:

SCEG withdrew its original petition to abandon the Summer Project, but this was only to facilitate government review of the petition.  After withdrawing the petition,  SCANA held a press conference and re-iterated its plans to abandonn the nuclear project.

Meanwhile, knowledgeable people have emailed me that the construction workers at Summer are probably not covered by WARN, but employees of Westinghouse and Fluor probably are covered.  I am not a lawyer, and I am merely repeating what they said.  It is probably true, however.

None of this is good news for the project or the workers.


The Stop-Work at Summer

At the V.C. Summer construction site in South Carolina, a stop-work order was issued by the plant owners. Within hours, thousands of people had to turn in their badges and leave. There is simply no way to sugar-coat this story.

Actually, there are at least two stories here: the first story is about why V.C. Summer was cancelled. That story has been widely discussed.  The second story is about how the  layoffs happened, and their legality (or not).  This story has not been covered very much. It will be covered here.

At the end of this post, I have an annotated list of resources  about the first topic, why Summer was cancelled.

The Human Cost

On Facebook, one friend wrote about how difficult the Summer closure was for his family.  I will not quote his statements here, but his post made me feel very sad for all the hard-working people at Summer.  I mean I was feeling bad already, but his post made me feel worse. The cancellation of Summer had a huge human cost. You can't lay off 5600 people without immense pain, and immense ripples in the community.

It is too mild to say that the layoffs themselves were not handled well.  In my opinion, the way the layoffs were handled was certainly immoral, and may have been illegal.  In this article, Fired nuclear construction workers crash State House, workers said they had "no warning from superiors before being let go about lunchtime Monday." In a video at WLTX, workers said "We met at our lunch location and they read these letters to us...."

It's impossible to get numbers, but most sources say 5000 people were affected by the equivalent of letters-read-at-the-lunch break.  In the video above, a worker says that he has never heard of so many people being laid off at one time.

My first reaction was that I thought that such a layoff was simply illegal.  A federal law, the WARN act, requires employers to give advance notice of large layoffs. Nolo.com has good article on the WARN act and South Carolina. (Nolo sells consumer-oriented legal books and software.)

WARN and the big boys

WARN covers employers who have at least 100 full-time-equivalent employees.  If 50 or more employees are laid off at one job site, WARN requires sixty days notice. (You can read the fine print at Nolo.com)

On Facebook, I said that I thought the short warning of this layoff was probably illegal. One person commented that I was making unwarranted assumptions.  In his opinion, a big employer would read the laws and obey them. Okay.  Basically, he was right about the biggest of the big boys on the job site: SCEG. According to this video and article from WISTV, SCEG notified the state of 615 layoffs at Summer (layoffs of their own employees), giving the requisite 60 days notice according to the WARN requirements.

However, they gave Westinghouse no such 60 days notice, because Westinghouse is a contractor, not an employee. Westinghouse immediately "furloughed" 870 employees, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.  However, these employees have no reason to believe that they will be called back from  this "furlough."  According to Post-Gazette article, a field engineering manager at Westinghouse has sued Westinghouse for violating WARN. He is attempting to achieve class-action status with his lawsuit.

SCEG covered its own employees, but employees of large and small subcontractors seem to be subject to the largest sudden layoff that I have ever heard about.

WARN and the not-so-big-boys

Westinghouse, with hundreds of employees on this project, is one of the big boys. Nevertheless, it seems to have issued as quick a lay-off notice as might have been issued by any local supplier of portapotties. Westinghouse is now being sued.  I suspect that many of the other contractors may also be sued.

Chess Pawn, Wikipedia
Opening Gambit or Closing the Door?

Why did the layoff happen in this sudden way?  It saved some money for SCEG, until they get sued, of course. It devastated towns and businesses and gave locals a pretty grim idea of what their utilities think about their welfare. Looking at a project that is over budget by billions of dollars, I don't think saving two months worth of salaries was the entire motivation. Decades of bad feelings are likely to arise from the sudden layoffs, and two months payroll was saved? To me, it doesn't make sense.

That is just my opinion, of course, but there it is.  Sometimes, dramatic events are the opening moves in fierce negotiations.  "Now that I have  your attention...."

Sometimes, of course, dramatic statements are the closing moves: "Look, I mean it, and nothing you can do will change my mind." However, that sort of statement often comes after a long fruitless negotiation.  Not always, but usually.

Games people play

If this were a chess game, I would say: This is more likely to be an opening gambit than a closing statement.

But wait, V.C. Summer is not a chess game!  In a chess game, the pawns are little pieces of plastic or wood or ivory.

At V.C. Summer, the pawns are more than 5000 real live people.

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Addendum:  Why V.C. Summer was cancelled.

I recommend three excellent blog posts on the reasons for the project cancellation.

In 2016, Will Davis wrote at ANS Nuclear Cafe: Nuclear Plant Costs-- A Look Back and Ahead 
This post describes the cascading effects of various types of cost overruns, including changes to the specifications, delays, and incomplete planning.

On July 31, 2017, Dan Yurman at Neutron Bytes wrote Utilities Pull the Plug on AP1000s at V.C. Summer.  He looks at the cost overruns, but also notes that Santee Cooper refused to go along with a plan to complete just one of the reactors.

On August 1, 2017, Rod Adams wrote: Tragic day in South Carolina as 5,000 people lost their jobs at VC Summer. Rod's post concentrates on design changes, specifically the Aircraft Impact Assessment Change.  There are 120 comments on that post.  Many of these comments are from very knowledgeable people.






3 comments:

Ike Bottema said...

Not sure of US labour laws and perhaps they differ from state to state but here in Ontario, generally notice has to be given or if laid off, wages must be paid for some period of time depending on length of employment. Thus payout is dependent on the particular situation of each employee. I can understand the immediate notice to vacate the premises to prevent any malicious damage inflicted by angry suddenly ex-employees.

Meredith Angwin said...

Ike,

It is common to make employees leave the site, once they are terminated. This practice guards against sabotage by angry ex-employees.

As I understand it, giving 60 days notice is not about whether you are on site or not, but whether you are still an employee. An employee keeps salary and benefits for the sixty day period, even if she can't return to the job site.

When the people on the V.C. Summer site were laid off, many (most?) of them lost their benefits and salaries immediately. Here's a news clip about one family where eight people lost jobs and health care....immediately on layoff. http://www.wltx.com/news/local/3-generations-8-family-members-laid-off-from-vc-summer/462929983

William said...

I agree 100%. This was poorly handled from the top down. As a former employee of a large multi-national utility holding company, I'm pretty sure the owners had a very good idea what was going on as far as finances, etc. If for some reason they didn't, then there is an entirely different problem going on.
Apparently, they didn't give the state Public Service Commission (or whatever they call it there) any notice either, which is again, poor judgement/management on the owners part.