The Paducah Sun
The Paducah Sun
Thursday, May 25, 2000
Paducah, Kentucky

Voluntary severance ends with less than ideal turnout

By Joe Walker

Forced job cuts await 127 Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant employees starting July 14 after a lackluster voluntary severance window closed Wednesday.

When the 19-day period ended at 4 p.m., 91 salaried workers and 57 union workers had applied for voluntary severance benefits including a cash payout of as much as $17,500 plus health insurance benefits, retraining funds and relocation funds.

The hourly breakdown includes 54 members of the plant atomic workers' union and three from the guards' union.

USEC Inc., the plant operator mired in financial difficulty, had hoped to entice voluntary severances for all the scheduled 275 layoffs. Another 350 jobs are being eliminated at a second USEC-run plant near Portsmouth, Ohio.

"We're generally pleased," said Georgann Lookofsky, the Paducah plant's USEC spokeswoman. "Of course, it's still well short of the total reduction, but it will significantly reduce the number of involuntary reductions we'll have to make."

Union leaders were far less optimistic.

"It's awful," said Donna Steele, vice president of the atomic workers' local. "This is the worst package we've ever seen, and people didn't have a fair shake. It happened with the salaried people, too."

Because of doubts about severance and the future of the plant itself, many bargaining unit members were trying to make last-minute decisions, Steele said. Notably absent from the package were early-retirement incentives, she said, adding that less experienced union workers dominated the voluntary list.

"Many of them are going to take the chance with involuntary reductions," she said. "I think that's what USEC was aiming to do by not paying anything. It's just been an unreal day."

John Driskill, president of Local 111 of Security Police and Fire Professionals of America, wrote USEC management Tuesday asking for a 30-day extension to the voluntary severance window. That would have given his union's lawyers time to research concerns that guards cuts will worsen security that is already jeopardized, he said.

Lookofsky said she was unaware of Driskill's request and there were no plans to extend the window.

"We're victims of our own success. We have a well-trained force," Driskill said. "But there are serious public safety concerns involved."

Next week, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission will hold public meetings in Paducah and Portsmouth about how it will ensure that the plants will continue to meet NRC standards after the job cuts. The meeting here is at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Crounse Hall (engineering building) at Paducah Community College.

NRC spokesman Jan Strasma said the meetings will review the agency's inspection plans as the plants downsize. In late June, the NRC expects to start reviewing evidence whether USEC's business outlook threatens a reliable domestic supply of enriched uranium as required BY the plants' operating certificates.

Two weeks ago, Driskill asked the Justice Department to block four scheduled cuts in the guard force until his security concerns could be investigated. He claims that a 1993 secret security plan is illegal because it does not reflect the presence of nuclear weapons parts at the plant. USEC officials say the plan is being revised to include that information.

Although the Justice Department refused to intervene, Driskill said guards' union lawyers are contemplating legal action against USEC. "I feel pretty confident we'll have some action one way or another on these cutbacks," he said.

Some plant employees said privately that they are worried that the skills mix of the job cuts will lead to mistakes in production and safety. They said the plant's high-stress environment may lead to regulatory and congressional intervention later this year. Several said they expect to see a move to put plant production back under governmental control.

After serious concerns were expressed about cutting four emergency response jobs, USEC management backed down from that plan, said Steele, whose local represents those workers. But under union bumping rights, senior workers from elsewhere in the plant will replace one or two fire department employees. Steele said the older workers will have to be retrained.

"You have the same concerns there as with security police," Driskill said. "If you make cuts in emergency response departments, you're cutting muscle, not fat. We're working double-digit overtime in both departments right now."