Moving Target

The city is rolling out the welcome mat for CITGO. But many workers want the company to get lost.

In a letter from Steve McCarthy, the refinery's union relations manager, to Congressman Gene Green, the company defended its record. "We want to assure you that we only take action to terminate an employee's relationship with [the refinery] when the employee engages in egregious conduct."

Arbitration records would indicate otherwise.

The Todds -- Rachel, Mike and daughter Jackie -- had 
to sell their dream home after his problems with the 
Daniel Kramer
The Todds -- Rachel, Mike and daughter Jackie -- had to sell their dream home after his problems with the plant.

Since 1999, the union has challenged 22 of the firings by the Lyondell-CITGO refinery. Of those, arbitrators sided with the company only five times. The other workers were reinstated -- nine of them with back pay.

At times, arbitrators have reacted with disgust to company policies. Ray Byars, a 25-year employee, was fired in December 2001. The sole reason: "deliberately misrepresenting" his need for an emergency vacation.

According to the arbitrator's report, Byars was in good standing with the company when he requested Thanksgiving week off to go to San Antonio to help his 77-year-old mother, who is legally blind.

Thinking Byars had to take his mother to a doctor's appointment, the refinery granted the request. But the paperwork Byars submitted post-vacation explained instead that he'd been needed to help her search for a new apartment.

Byars, the company argued, had therefore lied -- "good and sufficient cause for his discharge."

Arbitrator Mark R. Sherman gave Byars his job back, blasting the company. The case, Sherman wrote, "served as an embarrassing example of an approach to employee discipline that had run amok." He added that the company was lucky -- at least the matter was decided privately and not "in open court, or worse yet, the court of public opinion."

Union leaders accuse the company of firing older workers like Byars to save money on health benefits and retirement. They point to the company plan, first proposed in 1998, to offer early retirement to 212 employees. After the first 86 employees accepted the offer, however, the company dramatically reduced the eligibility, and only three more were allowed to go, Taylor says.

Soon after, union leaders say, the firings began. Of the 35 workers fired most recently, Taylor says, 18 have been at least 50 years old.

PACE representative Jim Lefton says the refinery has had to pay out some $750,000 under arbitrators' orders, often giving back pay to reinstated employees. Still, he says, "They continue to go down the same road. It makes you wonder. Either they're incompetent, or they don't care."

He has to figure it's the latter. After all, the battles seem to be hurting the union more than the refinery. "It costs $5,000 per party for an arbitrator to hear a case," says Carey Smith, the union's mobilization chairman, who was himself recently fired. "And they have a lot more '$5,000' than we do."

Mike Todd was 23 when he bought his dream house, a five-bedroom brick home in La Porte, two years ago. The house was maybe a little too big -- there was only Mike and his wife, Rachel. Their baby, Jackie, wasn't born until six months later.

But Todd was making close to $80,000 at the Lyondell-CITGO refinery, thanks to generous overtime, and the $167,000 mortgage was supposed to be an investment. "One thing people tell you is 'Buy everything you can afford,' " the 25-year-old worker says.

Now the Todds are moving out; the only things not in the U-Haul boxes lining the den are Jackie's Fisher-Price toys.

The Todds had to sell fast, and the price they got reflected that. There was no profit, not for the hardwood bathroom floors they added or for the carefully sodded backyard. And their next step is no upgrade: They're moving in with Rachel's parents in Rosenberg.

As Mike Todd tells it, his misfortune was made worse by the refinery's obstinacy. He was lifting something heavy in May when he tore a ligament in his wrist. Months later, a specialist told him he'd have problems for the rest of his life if he didn't have surgery quickly.

Recovery was supposed to take about ten weeks. Todd had some sick time saved up and figured he could return early for light duty.

"We could hold on if I just make base pay," he says. "Either that, or we'd be jumping off the cliff."

But when Todd's sick pay ran out November 3, his supervisor announced there was no light duty for him. Nor would the company give him vacation pay until the end of the year, since he was already out on medical leave. With his wife pregnant again and unable to work, Todd had to take loans from his 401(k) and put their dream house on the market.

He'd been angry at Lyondell-CITGO before, but it was nothing like how he feels today. "You slip up in the slightest way and break a company policy, and somebody's going to get fired over it," he says. "And this is stupid stuff that doesn't make any difference in how much money we make."

Co-workers seem to share that sentiment. The union recently rented a billboard along Texas 225 to display this message: "Lyondell-CITGO Refinery: Record Terminations. Last in Employee Appreciation & Morale."

CITGO has tried to disavow responsibility for the worker complaints -- spokeswoman Kate Robbins notes that CITGO still has only a minority ownership in the plant. Robbins referred questions to officials at the refinery, but they did not return repeated calls for comment.

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