Philly refinery fire was a WARN-ing: Pa. must do more to retrain displaced workers | Opinion

February 19, 2020 6:30 am

A helicopter prepares to land after a massive fire was brought under control at a crude oil refinery that triggered several large explosions at the Philadelphia Energy Solutions Refining Complex on June 21, 2019 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Fire broke out in the early morning that triggered a vat of butane to ignite with an explosion so large that it was detected from space. (Photo by Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images)

By Mike Zabel

When the explosions went off at Philadelphia Energy Solutions last year, I was at home with my wife and two children. I rushed to make sure that my friends and family were safe, and then I began to contemplate the fate of the union workers and their families.

Most of the 1,000 United Steelworker Union employees lived right here in Delaware County, and in those first few weeks, many of their futures were in limbo. My concern turned to anger as more than 100  salary people were fired that Wednesday while company executives were busy awarding themselves fat bonuses.

The shutdown at PES came hours after Hahnemann University Hospital in Philadelphia announced it would also shut down operations at the end of August, resulting in the loss of  4.000 jobs in a few months.

In October 2019, Johnson & Johnson announced nearly 300 layoffs at their Wayne, Pa. plant.This layoff just barely satisfied the federal WARN Act rules.

The Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act, was passed in 1988 in an attempt to protect workers from sudden mass layoffs.

But it does not actually do the job.

The law requires most companies with more than 100 employees to provide at least 60 days’ notice of a plant closing or mass layoff that will affect more than 50 people. Besides the fact that there are no federal protections like the WARN Act for small business employees, we all know that a 60-day notice is not enough time for families and the  economy to adjust.

Delaware County and Pennsylvania deserve more protection from mass layoffs and plant closings which can destroy hardworking  families and trash local economies.

We must protect local workers, their families and our economy by extending the WARN Act from 60 to 180 days’ notice. With additional lead time, workers can start looking for new employment and if necessary  prepare to relocate. This will give the  local economy and government time to prepare for changes in revenues and adjust budgets and services properly.

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A layoff is not just a layoff. When our neighbors, our little league coaches and our friend who works at Pica’s Pizzeria, are let go, our whole community suffers.

The WARN Act will only be extended if lawmakers in the state House and Senate feel consistent pressure to do so. As companies downsize, automate, and ship jobs overseas, we need to strengthen the  WARN Act to protect workers, families and local business.

If more dominos are going to fall in our communities, let’s limit the damage and give our families and business a warning.

State Rep. Mike Zabel, a Democrat, represents the Delaware County-based 163rd House District. He writes from Harrisburg

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