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Dec. 1, 2001 — After being criticized by Hovensa officials for comments he made about the company's contracting practices, V.I. Labor Commissioner Cecil Benjamin backtracked Friday. But only a little.
In early November, Jacobs IMC, Hovensa's primary maintenance contractor, told its employees that Hovensa had decided to use a new contractor to conduct major maintenance projects and overhauls of equipment, also called turnarounds. That news, which means some 240 to 250 Jacobs workers will be laid off on Dec. 31, apparently went public for the first time last week.
In a similar situation earlier this year, Jacobs lost its contract to hydro-blast mechanical equipment, paint and clean storage tanks at the refinery. When that happened, 185 workers were laid off. But they were picked up by Triangle Construction and Maintenance, which was awarded the contract for that work by Hovensa.
After last week's news, Benjamin said cutting contracts with one employer and then having workers start at another company is a "systemic way" for Hovensa and its subcontractors to limit long-term benefits to employees.
That raised the ire of Hovensa, and on Thursday, Hovensa Vice President Alex Moorhead said he was "shocked" by Benjamin's statements. Moorhead cautioned Benjamin not to be "hasty in impugning the actions of Hovensa and thereby causing unwarranted animosity against the company, which can lead to labor tension and even violence in the refinery."
In a release Friday, Benjamin acknowledged Hovensa for its being a good corporate citizen over the years. He also noted that his department has no authority over Hovensa's decision to hire new contractors.
"Nevertheless," Benjamin said, "we are very concerned about this practice and the many complaints lodged over the years that are consistent with these changes."
The changes, he said, cause "disruptions, anxiety and uneasiness on the part of the employees."
"This directly affects labor-management relations and appears to be a systemic way of avoiding certain benefits to the employees who consistently and continuously complained about this," Benjamin said. "We in DOL have such records of these complaints. We are simply reporting them."
He conceded that the "real problem" is with the subcontractors and not so much Hovensa. Consequently, Hovensa must be "more demanding" of their subcontractors to ensure that any unfair labor practices are diminished, Benjamin said.
He said that his comment about contracting practices at the refinery wouldn't cause labor violence, as Moorhead warned. Rather, Benjamin said, "What may cause this scenario is the unfair labor practice against the employees."
Both men, meanwhile, said they hoped the incoming contractor, Wyatt V.I., would hire as many of the Jacobs workers as possible. Moorhead noted, however, that fewer overhaul projects are scheduled for 2002 compared to this year.

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