72.4 F
Cruz Bay
Wednesday, February 28, 2024


Subcontractors from the Hovensa oil refinery on St. Croix found themselves on the hot seat for alleged employment abuses Friday night in the Senate.
But by the time the Committee on Labor and Veterans Affairs grilled Hovensa officials and representatives from several subcontractors for four hours, no clear-cut cases of discrimination against local workers emerged, in particular that off-island workers were being used in place of locals.
Committee Chairwoman Norma Pickard Samuel called the meeting to respond to complaints her office received about subcontractors not hiring local contractors on Hovensa's $500 million-plus coker project. Additionally, Sen.
Norman Jn Baptiste voiced concern about pre-employment tests given to prospective employees working for subcontractors.
"Hovensa isn't aware of qualified resident workers being replaced by off-island workers," said Alex Moorhead, Hovensa vice president for human resources.
He did say, however, that Bechtel International, the primary contractor on the coker project, has imported workers for "specialty work." Of the approximately 1,800 workers now involved in the coker construction, Moorhead said a little more than 1,000 are local residents. In addition, Moorhead said that the coker construction contract between Hovensa and Bechtel stipulates that Bechtel must make a concerted effort to hire locally before importing workers.
There were no representatives from Bechtel at the meeting. Acting Labor Commissioner Cecil Benjamin said that of the approximately 1,000 people employed by Bechtel, 80 percent are local.
"They have complied with most of the laws," Benjamin said.
Meanwhile, Benjamin said his office has received about a dozen wrongful discharge and discrimination complaints against Hovensa and its subcontractors. Several of those have already been settled. And while Labor has received other complaints, they haven't been officially submitted.
"So far we haven't received any complaints for which an investigation can be conducted," Benjamin said.
Gerald Bingham of Anthony Crane, a Hovensa subcontractor, said that of the 137 people employed by his company, two are non-local. Under questioning from Sen. Donald "Ducks" Cole, Bingham acknowledged that he has fired six workers for failing drug tests, one of the pre-employment tests all Hovensa subcontractors perform before hiring, including a safety skills test that includes reading and math comprehension.
Baptiste said he was concerned about allegations that the tests were given to locals but not off-island workers.
"I can assure you there are no double standards," said Rene Sagebien, Hovensa president and CEO. "Our company wouldn't stand for it." Sagebien said that confusion could arise when off-island workers are tested prior to their arrival on St. Croix, making it appear that they haven't been tested.
While Hovensa and Bechtel anticipated a shortage of qualified local residents to work on the massive coker project and started a craft school, the lack of skilled workers is a problem. Sagebien said that during scheduled maintenance of the refinery's critical fluidized catalytic cracking unit, or cat cracker — a part of the coker project — subcontractor Jacobs IMC found itself short 300 workers in February.
"We had to extend the duration of the shutdown because our contractor couldn't find sufficient manpower," Sagebien said, adding that the delay cost Hovensa "several million dollars." As for hiring local contractors to supply heavy equipment for the coker project, Sagebien and Bingham said that is done when there is a need and the local contractor meets certain specifications.
"It's expensive to bring it in," Sagebien said, adding that local equipment is contracted if it is "certified and in good condition."
"It will be utilized," he said. "It's the logical thing to do."

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Keeping our community informed is our top priority.
If you have a news tip to share, please call or text us at 340-228-8784.

Support local + independent journalism in the U.S. Virgin Islands

Unlike many news organizations, we haven't put up a paywall – we want to keep our journalism as accessible as we can. Our independent journalism costs time, money and hard work to keep you informed, but we do it because we believe that it matters. We know that informed communities are empowered ones. If you appreciate our reporting and want to help make our future more secure, please consider donating.