April 5, 2002 – At a Senate Labor and Veterans Affairs Committee meeting Thursday night, senators listened as five former and present subcontracted employees testified that they had been and are being subjected to unfair hiring practices and racial discrimination at the Hovensa oil refinery.
The workers said Hovensa maintenance subcontractor and Wyatt VI and its predecessor, Jacobs IMC, have brought in stateside workers for supervisory positions who lack the training or experience of the local employees who are required to train them.
Hovensa hired Jacobs IMC in 1999 to improve the refinery's competitive position by reducing its high maintenance costs, Hovensa Vice President Alex Moorhead has said, but results were disappointing, and Wyatt was contracted to replace Jacobs effective Jan. 1, 2001.
Thursday's testimony concerned alleged violations by both subcontractors.
Luis Angel Montalvo, a Virgin Islander, said he had worked at Hovensa and its predecessor, Hess Oil V.I. Corp, from October 1993 to February 2002, when he was laid off due to a reduction in the work force. He said he worked as a safety engineer prior to Jacobs acquiring the contract in 1999, when he upgraded to safety supervisor but with no pay increase. He said he also served as an interpreter for contracted employees from Puerto Rico.
Montalvo testified that his stateside equals were being paid about $8 more per hour but were assigned and performed lesser duties.
With 11 years of service at the refinery, he said, he was told by an imported stateside worker that he "didn't have the proper qualifications, and he couldn't trust my judgment."
Montalvo circulated a 23-page portfolio which included certificates from 1996 for effective leadership, hazardous waste operations, supervisor and Train the Trainer certification programs, refresher courses and numerous technician certifications. The documents were issued by the V.I Medical Institute, IMC, New Environment Inc., V.I. Labor Department occupational safety and health division and the National Center for Construction Education and Research.
Sen. Norma Pickard-Samuel, committee chair, shook her head in disgust as she listened to the scenarios described by Montalvo and other witnesses.
"I'm 58 years old, and I am worried about what they are doing to my children and other children," Norman L. Buntinn, a worker at Hess/Hovensa for more than 30 years, said. He told senators that he was among those who went to work on a Wednesday only to be told that Wyatt VI did not need their services for the rest of the week, but they could pick up their pay checks the following day at 9 a.m. He said on the Thursday he was told to come back several times, and his check still was not ready at 5 p.m.
Also, Buntinn said, Wyatt officials told workers they could return the next Monday to see if they had been selected to work on the next "unit turnaround" maintenance project.
Labor Commissioner Cecil Benjamin rejected criticism that his department lacked support or concern for workers with regard to alleged unfair labor practices at the refinery. "Labor as an institution is charged with looking after the matter of labor in the territory," he said. "There is such a place to come."
One former Jacobs IMC employee said the company would submit workers' requests for pay raises and promotions to Hovensa, where they were denied. "How is it that a subcontractor with their own employees have promotions and raises dictated by Hovensa?" Hansen asked.
Paul Arnold, Hovensa's director of community relations, said all contracts are subject to review by the Hovensa as contract grantor. He said there are "hard" contracts and "reimbursable" contract, with Jacobs and Wyatt falling under the latter. A reimbursable contract requires prior Hovensa approval of any expenditure changes under the existing contract, including pay scales, he said.
Moorhead, Hovensa vice president for government affairs and community relations, stated that the refinery was aware of "several charges of discrimination" filed within the last six months with the Labor Department and the Equal Opportunity Commission "only because Hovensa was listed as an entity that allegedly engaged in discrimination with one of two independent contractors." He said 11 such charges were filed jointly against the refinery and Jacobs IMC and four were filed against Hovensa and Wyatt.
Attorney Lee J. Rohn presented to the committee two files of documents which she said concern 60 persons who have filed claims against Hovensa, Jacobs IMC and another subcontractor, Bechtel "These files include violations against the American Arbitration Act," she said.
Rohn said Jacobs wanted to provide the same housing benefits for local supervisors that it does for off-island contractors, but Hovensa denied the request. "This is a labor broker, not a subcontractor," she said of the role of the contracted company.
According to Rohn, her clients include five with cases dating from 1995. "The discrimination is so pervasive," she said. "There are racial slurs all over in the bathrooms and other locations," she added, citing a letter she said had been sent to Hovensa by an employee about uncomfortable working conditions.
Alexander Moorhead, Hovensa vice president for government affairs and community relations, said he was aware of a Feb. 12 letter from a Bechtel employee stating that there was racial graffiti on the walls of portable toilets situated on the refinery grounds. He said the contractors and sanitation service vendors had been told to check out and clean up the surfaces and to report any further defacing of the walls to Hovensa.
Moorhead said he was aware of only 15 claims against the company and its subcontractors and asked that Rohn provide Hovensa copies of the complaints she had given the committee. He also invited the senators and labor officials to join him on a tour of the refinery on Friday, assuring them that they would find no offensive graffiti.
Former Hovensa process operator Malcolm Maccow said that "finding employment, finding stable employment is the question." He told the senators that all of his training, experience and credentials have not guaranteed him employment or fair consideration for promotions.
Maccow testified that when he was selected as the only non-management employee to sit in executive meetings and serve as a trainer for co-workers, "I took that position as an honor." He said when he inquired about a pay increase to a level equitable with what others were paid, he was told he would be considered after a six-month probationary period. After three months, he said, he was demoted to the position of a helper despite his hard work. "If you have to feed your family, what you gon' do?" Maccow asked.
Virginie George, a welder with more than 16 years of service at the refinery, questioned Hovensa's employment testing practices. He said he is a victim of discrimination and retaliation and now considers himself a burden to the welfare system because he lost his job. He asked Benjamin to look into how many job openings are listed with the Labor Department and how many qualified Virgin Islanders have been hired for technical and supervisory positions.
George said he is a certified National Center for Construction instructor and logistics and equipment coordinator and that he has 53 credits toward a bachelor of arts at the University of the Virgin Islands, and that he maintained a 4.1-point rating out of a possible 5 on his company-administered progress reports.
After six hours of testimony, Pickard-Samuel told representatives of the contractors, "You are heading for a collision course. It gets me angry." She said the complaints presented served as a poor example for responsible young people who choose to be productive in their community. When they see their parents and other workers treated poorly,
she said, why they should seek work at the same place?
Citing increasing violent crime in the territory, Pickard-Samuel said, "This is why our young men are on the streets. When our people can't feed their families … "
Adjourning the hearing at about 12:20 a.m., Pickard Samuel said that her committee would caucus on Friday to determine an approach to solving the "continuous" problem of unfair labor practices at the refinery over the years. "It is unfair that our people are subjected to this," she said, addressing the company representatives. "I'm not for taking away corporate benefits, because it will sink this territory, but while you are here, you will do the right thing."
She also asked Benjamin to provide her an analysis of all positions posted and filled by the subcontractors.
Publisher's note : Like the St. Croix Source now? Find out how you can love us twice as much — and show your support for the islands' free and independent news voice … click here.