The Paducah Sun
The Paducah Sun

DOE to add to benefits for layoffs

By Bill Bartleman

The U.S. Department of Energy will announce next week that it will provide enhanced benefits for the 425 Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant workers who will be laid off this summer.

"We will be doing something to help the workers," said Walter Perry, a DOE spokesman. "We are just trying to find out how much more we can do. It is likely to involve helping with relocation, medical (benefits), retraining and education benefits."

It is the first confirmation from DOE of an addition to the standard layoff package that will be offered by the U.S. Enrichment Corp., which operates the plant.

The layoffs of the 425 workers in Paducah and 425 workers at a sister plant in Portsmouth, Ohio, are scheduled to take place July 14. The layoffs are a move to reduce costs for financially troubled USEC.

DOE's announcement will come as USEC prepares to begin a three-week period of seeking volunteers willing to be laid off. The volunteer period was to have begun next Monday, but an announcement is expected today that it will be delayed, apparently awaiting the DOE announcement.

U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell had pushed for DOE to offer enhanced benefits after the Senate failed to approve a supplemental appropriation for DOE and the Paducah plant earlier this month.

Late Wednesday, McConnell, R-Louisville, said he hadn't been notified of the enhancement package by DOE but learned about Perry's comments from a reporter.

"Before applauding, I want to see what they have in mind," McConnell said. "We look forward to the announcement so that we can confirm that it is a meaningful package, and I hope it will be meaningful."

Perry said details of the package were still being decided Wednesday by top DOE officials in Washington. "We are in the final stages of determining any enhanced package and anticipate making a decision next week," he said. "We are looking at a number of options."

Perry said he didn't know how much the enhancement package would cost.

After the period for layoff volunteers to speak up expires next month, USEC will review the list and decide which volunteers to accept. A USEC representative said that some may not be accepted if they are in key positions that aren't part of the layoff plan.

Once the volunteer list is finalized, USEC will announce the mandatory layoffs of other employees. USEC has indicated that 40 to 48 percent would be union employees, with the rest salaried personnel.

USEC's severance package will pay laid-off workers based on their years of service. The pay for union workers will range from three to 26 weeks, and from 4.3 to 30.4 weeks for salaried employees.

An April 11 memo to all USEC employees from Jim Adkins, USEC vice president of production, said the first consideration in deciding layoffs is plant safety. He said the reductions will not compromise the safe operation of the plant.

Adkins also said a new organizational structure is being implemented that includes new job descriptions. "The next phase of the process (to decide who will be laid off) involves selecting salaried employees who meet job qualifications and have the requisite skills and competencies needed now and in the future," Adkins said.

McConnell also said he would continue to push for cleanup funds that could provide jobs for some of those laid off. Also, he said the 2001 budget being considered by Congress should include additional funds for a worker severance package.

Also, he said the next budget is likely to include enough money to fund properly a worker medical testing program that began two years ago.

McConnell and others in Kentucky's Washington delegation have been seeking additional funds so that all past and current workers can be tested for potential health problems related to working in the plant. Without additional funds, it would take five years or more to complete the testing.

McConnell also said it is likely the federal government would take over the plant if USEC fails because of financial problems. The government owned the enrichment operation until 1998 when a plan to privatize the industry was completed.

Changes in market conditions and restrictions placed on USEC since the takeover have caused financial problems. The conditions included restrictions on layoffs and plant closings and requiring USEC to buy nuclear grade uranium from Russia. Others have alleged that the operation has been poorly managed as a private enterprise.