Shell Games

Did the petrochemical giant fudge the facts to get rid of a pesky worker?

Even if Shell's Deer Park refinery had a job for Ron Bennett, it's easy to see why the company might not be keen to offer it to him. Bennett, who worked at the refinery from 1988 until he injured his back in March 1991, has been a boil on the oil giant's behind for six years, suing Shell in state and federal court, complaining to the National Labor Relations Board and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and filing four grievances through the plant's union. In 1993, Bennett even formed a one-man picket line at the Shell Houston Open golf tournament.

What's got Bennett bugged is that since his injury, Shell has failed to return him to work, either at his old job as an operator in the company's hydroprocessing area or at some other, less strenuous post. Under Shell's collective bargaining agreement with the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers, the company is supposed to find either temporary or permanent alternatives for injured employees. In Bennett's case, that never happened.

Instead, after more than two years without a paycheck and numerous appeals, Bennett was officially fired in September 1995. The company says, among other things, that no jobs were available that fit his medical restrictions despite ongoing efforts to place him.

But Shell's own documents raise doubts about that claim, and though Bennett's actions and intense demeanor may have raised a few eyebrows, the evidence seems to lean his way: "The reasons for why they terminated him don't add up," says Bennett's attorney, Bill Ryan.

Bennett's relationship with Shell wasn't always contentious. He hired on at the Deer Park refinery in 1988 after eight years in the Air Force and a year as a temp at Compaq. According to his personnel records, Bennett did well the first few years on the job. Noting that he "clearly meets job requirements," an evaluation in late 1989 predicted a good future for Bennett. "Ron should develop to a solid to top performer in time," the evaluation read. "He listens and he's cooperative. He is willing to learn."

But Bennett says his stint at the refinery began to sour after only two months on the job. Asked to conduct a safety audit of the tank farm where he was assigned, he discovered a number of violations, including several fire extinguishers with low charges, which he duly reported. "I did the audit to a T," Bennett says. "I didn't know any better."

Two days later, however, a foreman cornered Bennett and blasted him for writing up the violations instead of rubber-stamping the report. That incident, Bennett says, marked the beginning of routine harassment. He maintains that shortly thereafter, someone deliberately sabotaged his unit by leaving pipelines open to create minor spills.

Eventually Bennett was transferred to the hydroprocessing area, where raw petroleum distillates are further refined into various products. Though he initially seemed to have left his troubles behind, Bennett says the harassment and sabotage started again, and in March 1991 he wrote a complaint to management. The day after he submitted the statement, he says, someone wearing a Shell uniform cased his house.

About this time, Bennett strained his back and took disability leave. Meanwhile, company officials investigated the charges of harassment and sabotage and found them baseless. According to an internal Shell report, this angered Bennett, who felt that the investigation "amounted to walking around the control room with a notepad, asking if anyone had knowledge of [the] allegations, and no one spoke up."

Bennett's complaint had the opposite effect than the one he intended. Instead of vindicating his claims, the company began to question his emotional stability, and references to his dubious mental condition began to accrue in the records. "I called Inge Fegan to solicit her views on sending Bennett for psychiatric evaluation," wrote human resources representative Reggie Thomas in a June 1992 memo. "She recommended we not press the issue with Bennett: His attorney has not been willing to cooperate with earlier efforts to address his psychological problems."

The date that Bennett was ready to return to work remains in dispute, mostly because he saw a number of different doctors, all of whom had slightly different opinions about his medical status. But Shell seemed in no hurry to clarify the matter.

Nor did Shell seem anxious to help Bennett get back to work. Noting various impairments, an August 1991 evaluation prepared by the Center for Work Recovery, a private occupational rehabilitation clinic, suggested he undergo the center's "work hardening" program, a therapy often used to rehab injured workers. But Bennett never saw the report, which had been submitted to Shell, and didn't know of the program's existence until the company asked him to enroll -- three years later.

Shell further confused matters by giving his medical providers inaccurate or conflicting job descriptions that made it virtually impossible to say with certainty whether Bennett was ready to perform his required tasks.

According to the union's collective bargaining agreement, Shell is supposed to find temporary alternatives for injured employees until they've recovered enough to assume their old jobs, something the company has done routinely in the past. And that seemed to be the intent, at least initially: Several 1991 Shell memos indicate that the company planned to offer Bennett a cushier job until he was ready for heavier duty.

But that offer never came, and in the fall of 1992, Bennett filed his first union grievance to get his job back. Shell rejected the claim on the grounds that he wasn't yet healthy enough to return to his old job. As for alternatives, as refinery spokesman Dennis Winkler says, "There were no jobs available that Shell was comfortable that Ron could work with his job restrictions."

Shell's change of heart may have been influenced by Bennett's increasing contentiousness, which began to grate on the image-conscious company as early as July 1991, after he indicated he'd hired a lawyer. Subsequent charges filed with the EEOC and NLRB didn't help. (They were later dismissed.) And when Bennett threatened to picket the annual Houston Shell Open golf tournament as well as company headquarters downtown, management took offense. "I responded that Shell certainly preferred that he not attempt to tarnish our public image," wrote human resources manager B.C. Smith after a meeting with Bennett.

Bennett's physical ability to return to work may have been in question for a while, but by the end of 1994, most doubts should have been erased. After the company finally enrolled him in a work-hardening rehab program late in the year, the doctor who examined Bennett pronounced him fit and ready. "Shepper approves Hydro job and build up over two months," read Reggie Thomas's notes after a talk with the doctor.

Perhaps aware that its no-jobs case against Bennett is thin, Shell expanded its strategy to include a novel argument: Bennett doesn't want his job. In a November 1996 psychiatric report prepared for a federal court case (which Bennett filed but recently dropped), Baylor College of Medicine professor John Meyer claims that Bennett "was offered at least two job positions," but turned down both. "Ultimately, it was Mr. Bennett's refusal to return to work that prevented/stifled the company's ability and attempts to return him to work."

Bennett laughs off the charge, citing his repeated attempts to win back his job through legal channels as proof that he wants to work. Besides, even if the company had made verbal overtures to Bennett, the collective bargaining agreement with the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers requires that the matter be resolved through union channels.

James Webber, OCAW vice president of operations, is handling the pending arbitration hearing. Webber claims that Shell's case is weak, and that the company is jerking Bennett around mostly because it can. "Shell's kind of arrogant that way," he says. "They're the kind of company that would spend a million to save a dollar."

What's at stake for the refinery's workers, Webber says, is the cooperation they receive from the company in future disability cases. "If we win," he says, "the company is gonna be a lot more interested in working the issues out [in the future]."

While he awaits resolution of his case, Bennett works on the production line at the Dreyer's Ice Cream plant in northwest Houston. "It's the most physical job I've ever had in my life," he says.

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