Jan 27, 2005 "We have conflicting testimony here and have set a task before us – to find the truth," was how Sen. Craig Barshinger summed up the eight-hour Senate Labor and Agriculture Committee hearing on Thursday in Frederiksted.
The committee in the morning heard from Alex Moorhead, vice president of Hovensa, and two managers Jim Babin and Richard Langner of Sun Constructors, a company doing electrical work at Hovensa. All three men said they were doing everything they could to hire qualified St. Croix residents to work at the refinery.
In the afternoon, the committee heard from Jason Rames and Mark Vitalis, V.I. residents who said they were qualified workers but not hired at Hovensa.
Sen. Celestino White kept referring to plane loads of workers arriving on St. Croix and going straight to work at Hovensa. Moorhead said the plane loads of workers White was referring to was a group that came into to do a 23-day turnaround project at the refinery.
These were pipefitters, boilermaker and welders who the V.I. Department of Labor were unable to supply, according to Moorhead. He said, the Department of Labor was notified that 88 pipefitters were needed, but the department could only refer 18 applicants. He also added, "There were 14 positions for boilermakers and only four referrals. What are we supposed to do when this happens? Quit working?"
White made the case that it was a disadvantage for V.I. workers to be registered at the V.I. Department of Labor and being referred to job openings. He was so convincing in his arguments that the Department of Labor was an impediment to getting jobs that by the end of the afternoon, Cecil Benjamin, commissioner of the Labor Department, had a proposal for legislation that said all workers, even if they were from the mainland, would have to register at the Department of Labor.
When the Department of Labor gets a notice of vacancy, it matches the vacancy up with all those registered who have relevant skills.
Sens. T. "Positive" Nelson and Juan Figueroa-Serville referred to V.I. laws concerning what rights a resident worker had in contrast to a non-resident. They thought a non-resident was anyone who did not live on the island. Moorhead pointed out to them non-resident in the context of the law meant a non-USA citizen.
Several times senators raised their voices in a show of indignation toward the testifiers. Sens. Usie Richards and White continued to mangle the pronunciation of Babin's name even though they were corrected on its pronunciation several times
Barshinger said he thought the questioning of testifiers could be done in a less hostile matter.
Sen. Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg, who, like White, appeared to giving a performance, gave a lecture to Langner. Donastorg was concerned over an application that Langner had allowed to be circulated among senators.
Sun employed 475 workers in December of which 225 were island residents.
Langner had presented the application as evidence where, for a particular posting, he had to set half of the applications he received from the Department of Labor aside because they were incomplete or illegible. He went on to say he then lost a third of the remaining applicants because they failed a drug test. Then, about another third were lost because they could not pass a reading comprehension test. This test to ensure safety of the workers requires that they have a reading comprehensive level of 8th grade.
Donastorg said the name on the application was Hispanic and it should not have been released in a public forum. He said it was an insult to the person who filled it out.
Donastorg questioned whether Barshinger's terming of the questioning by certain senators as being hostile was correct. Moorhead replied that, indeed, he thought it was "overly aggressive."
Several senators agreed with Figueroa-Serville who proposed there should be more assistance for Spanish-speaking applicants.
Moorhead said he didn't accept the premise that many on the island cannot understand English and needed their instructions in Spanish. He said, if that is the case, then all the signage and legal documents in the Virgin Islands should also be done in Spanish.
In his opening remarks Moorhead spoke about Hovensa forming a partnership with the Department of Education to introduce a Summer Academy to help high school teachers of math and science get certified. He said the idea came from the Department of Education, but Hovensa was encouraging it.
Senators and testifiers agreed the Virgin Islands was failing in its education of students.
Benjamin said, "We have failed miserably to properly educate and train our people in the territory."
Still others questioned whether the reading comprehension test was to blame.
Nelson, a former teacher and chair of the committee, appeared to question whether reading was really a skill needed by laborers at Hovensa. White pointed out that there are universal symbols such as the car sliding over wiggly lines to signify a slippery road that are universally known.
Vitalis said he heard imported workers were allowed to take the test with open books in the comfort of their hotel rooms.
He called the earlier testimony of Moorhead, Babin and Langner "sweet lies." He said, "I am not illiterate. I am not a drug addict and I did not get hired."
In later testimony Benjamin said that Vitalis had been offered a job, but Vitalis found some of the conditions unacceptable.
Moorhead, Babin and Langner denied again and again that there was any conspiracy to hire imported labor. Babin pointed out that imported labor was more expensive than local labor because imported workers were paid about $750 a week living expenses. He also said, that as a general rule, local workers were more dependable than those brought in from the states.
Sen. Ronald Russell did not appear to subscribe to the conspiracy theory, but he was critical of Hovensa from a historical perspective.
He said that Hovensa had systematically broken the agreement signed with the V.I. government in 1965 when the refinery was being established on the island.
He read from the agreement a line stating "75 percent of the persons employed in the operation and maintenance of the oil refinery and related facilities shall be legal residents of the Virgin Islands."
Moorhead responded that practically all of the 1200 permanent employees at Hovensa were island residents.
He had stated earlier in testimony that subcontractors were not required to follow all the guidelines set forth by the government for Hovensa to follow, however, it was written into their contract that they would. Those guidelines require Hovensa to post notice of any vacancies with the V.I. Department of Labor before seeking workers elsewhere.
Russell said that, at the least, the spirit of agreement, which he called a social compact, had been broken. He said that Hovensa knows every couple years there will be a need for workers to do the turnaround a maintenance project where machinery is inspected, cleaned and repaired if necessary — but there is nothing in place to train local workers to do it.
Nelson in his opening remarks also noted that this was an ongoing problem. He said, however, "It will not be business as usual."
Sen Norman Jn Baptiste said he believed Hovensa, the contractors, and the legislators all had the same goal to get more St. Croix residents employed. He urged that more meetings with Hovensa be scheduled so methods to reach that goal could be found.
Sheryll Jones, human resources manager, Wyatt V.I. Corp. which is handling the turnaround project, was invited to attend, but did not attend.
Although senators stated that politics should be kept out of the discussion, they didn't.
After Benjamin's opening remarks, White attacked Benjamin, chair of the V.I. Democratic Party, for making public statements in support of the Democrat minority caucus.
Besides the sena
tors mentionied above, Sens. Pedro "Pete" Encarnacion and Liston Davis were in attendance.
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