SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

January 25, 2014

Salem power plant workers: What's next?

BY TOM DALTON
STAFF WRITER

---- — SALEM — There aren’t many people left at Salem Harbor Station. A workforce that was about 400 strong two decades ago is down to just over 100.

And the clock is ticking.

The coal- and oil-fired power plant will close May 31 after more than 60 years of operation on the waterfront.

“Everybody is preparing to move on,” said Rick Robey, assistant business manager of IBEW Local 326, which is down to about 60 members in Salem.

A few dozen workers left about two years ago when two of the plant’s four generating units were shuttered, according to Robey. But the rest stayed on, knowing the plant’s days were numbered.

Even if the new plant owners, Footprint Power of New Jersey, get approval to build a 674-megawatt power plant fueled by natural gas, the modern facility will employ only 30 to 40 workers. Some of those jobs may go to current employees, but for most, the plant closing means retirement or a new career.

If the new plant is approved and site demolition and remediation begin, some workers are expected to stay on during the transition.

But most will move on — with severance packages and a little help from Footprint.

The plant has offered job counseling and paid for job training. Workers who have been making $60,000 to $80,000 (before overtime) at the power plant have been training for commercial driver’s licenses, taken oil burner and air conditioning courses, and gone after charter boat licenses.

“They’ve been very generous, paying for their courses, allowing them to go (for training) during work hours,” Robey said. “They’re doing everything they can to help these guys prepare for work after everybody leaves here.”

Footprint Power CEO Peter Furniss said they have tried to help workers during this transition period.

“Our whole philosophy has been that this is a two-year period from acquisition of the plant to where the staff could start to chart out the rest of their lives,” he said. “Whether they wanted to come to work at the new gas plant or another gas plant somewhere else, or whether they wanted to go in a completely different direction with their careers, this was an opportunity to do that, and we were going to support them in doing that.”

Furniss called the career training program “self-directed.” If workers came in with ideas for new careers, the company has tried to support them, he said.

While stressing that operating the plant safely and efficiently has been the “highest priority,” Furniss said workers, in some cases, have been allowed to go for training during normal work hours.

The CEO praised workers for running the plant 24 hours a day while planning their futures.

“These guys are dedicated to their task, and their task is to keep the lights on for the North Shore,” he said. “And that’s what they’ve been doing, day and night and, in some of their cases, for many decades.”

Tom Dalton can be reached at tdalton@salemnews.com.