DOE turns down ex-workers
Secretary Richardson wonít meet with Flats retirees

Colorado Daily Staff Writer
November 02, 1999

U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, Colorado Governor Bill Owens and Colorado Attorney General Ken Salazar talk to those gathered at Rocky Flats Monday. The officials were there to honor plant workers in connection with the demolition of the plantís building 779.
Jim Kelly worked most of his life at Rocky Flats.

Sixty-six years old and retired, he suffers from cancer and worries that the government and the current Rocky Flats contractor, Kaiser-Hill, will chip away at his health benefits and those of thousands of other retirees who used to work at the now-mothballed nuclear weapons plant south of Boulder.

So when U.S. Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson visited Rocky Flats Monday in connection with the demolition of a former plutonium building, Kelly figured the least Richardson could do was meet with the retirees and listen to their concerns.

No dice.

It was the fourth time Richardson has visited the Denver area on official business in the last 13 months, and for the fourth time, he turned down requests to meet with the plantís retired steelworkers, Kelly said. Instead, another DOE official has agreed to meet with them Thursday.

"We got rejected, as usual," Kelly complained. "We would like to have half an hour. I donít think thatís too much."

Richardson, speaking at the plant site, made honorable mentions of "the workers of yesterday, today and tomorrow." But asked why he wouldnít meet with the retired steelworkers, he said his staff hadnít informed him about the meeting request.

"I didnít know they asked to meet with me," Richardson said.

Noting that a member of his labor relations staff would meet with the steelworkers, he added, "Iím sure that their problems will be properly addressed."

Kelly, an official with the U.S. Steelworkers of America Local 8031 for many years, is now active with the Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees.

He said the retired steelworkers enjoy good health benefits but worry that Kaiser-Hill and the Department of Energy may water down those benefits.

Unlike retirees and workers at some other nuclear-complex sites, who have requested compensation from the DOE for health problems, Kelly said Rocky Flats retirees simply want to hang onto benefits that they negotiated in good faith. Rocky Flats union workers over the years chose good benefits over higher pay increases, and they have a right to keep those benefits, he said.

"Weíre not asking for a single thing more," Kelly said. "Weíre just asking that people have what they were led to believe theyíd have when they retired."

Kaiser-Hill spokeswoman Jennifer Thompson said her company is required by the DOE to review retireesí benefits annually to see if they are in compliance with industrywide standards. When they are not, Kaiser-Hill "outlines options" for how the benefits may be brought into compliance, she said.

This is done at DOEís order to save taxpayers money, and all final decisions are up to the DOE, Thompson said.

"Kaiser-Hill doesnít have a horse in the race," she said.

But bringing benefits "into compliance" usually means reducing them, because Kaiser-Hill compares the benefits with those of many non-unionized industries, Kelly said. He said Kaiser-Hill, which has only been on the site for four years, is the first Rocky Flats contractor thatís suggested benefit reductions.

"This is the first firm thatís raised the ugly specter of screwing with the retirees," Kelly said. "They donít care who worked out here. They say, ĎWe donít owe them anything.í"

Kelly said Richardsonís refusal to meet with the retired steelworkers was especially disappointing given that the union had actively supported Bill Clintonís election campaigns.

"I donít think that weíll ever get a meeting with Richardson, which I find appalling, because itís a Democratic administration that we supported," he said.

In contrast, James Watkins, the energy secretary under the Bush administration, met with workers and retirees numerous times, Kelly said.

All the retirees want from Richardson, Kelly said, is a commitment that the DOE will live up to its obligations in regards to benefits.

"Weíre talking about 3,000 older people that are worried," Kelly said. "This sends a hell of a lot of people to bed worried. They canít enjoy their retirement."