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Labor Report

Asbestos Concerns Intensify in Philly Schools After Teacher’s Cancer Diagnosis

After learning that a longtime Philadelphia public school teacher has been diagnosed with a rare form of cancer often caused by asbestos exposure, a coalition of labor leaders, elected officials, and advocates renewed their call for immediate public funding to remove hazardous materials from dozens of city school buildings.

Senator Christine TartaglioneThe Philadelphia Federation of Teachers hosted a September 11 news conference to announce the tragic news. PFT President Jerry Jordan said that the affected teacher has contracted mesothelioma, a cancer that most commonly attacks tissue of the lungs and chest wall. About 3,000 new cases are diagnosed in the U.S. each year. More than 80 percent of cases are linked to asbestos.

The teacher, whose name was not disclosed, has worked in public schools for “decades,” including the last 17 years at Meredith Elementary and, prior to that, at Nebinger Elementary. Both grade schools are among about 175 older buildings around the city that may be contaminated by “disturbed” asbestos, according to the teachers’ union.

Senator Tartaglione is among the state and local leaders who have joined the effort as members of the Fund Our Facilities Coalition to secure $100 million for asbestos and lead paint abatement at those sites.

“Picture this: you have a child in grade school. Their lungs are still developing. And they’re exposed to asbestos. We are doing that every single day that our children go to an elementary school, a middle school, or a high school,” Senator Tartaglione said. “Our teachers have to be in that classroom (too). We can’t let this happen. One case means we have to check every single school and remediate it.”

Pat Eiding, president of the Philadelphia AFL-CIO said: “This is a gut punch. As someone who’s spent a long time working in the construction industry, I’ve seen too often the effects of this catastrophic disease on my friends and union family. To know that every day, teachers and students walk into environments that can literally poison them is simply a disgrace.”

The School District of Philadelphia told WHYY it routinely inspects schools in accordance with federal law, and that it has performed 1,600 asbestos abatement projects around the district in the last three years, including three projects at Meredith. At the PFT event, Senator Tartaglione said that the prevalence of the asbestos issue is symptomatic of a bigger problem – that public employees are not protected by the same workplace safety standards as private-sector workers and those in the federal workforce are protected.

When Congress passed the Occupational Safety and Health Act in 1970, and President Nixon signed it into law, they excluded millions of state and municipal employees, as well as public school employees. Last spring, Senator Tartaglione introduced Senate Bill 464 that would extend OSHA protections to the excluded public-sector workers, including police, firefighters, paramedics, corrections officers, highway maintenance workers, public transit workers, and school faculty and staff.

“If OSHA was in place, we wouldn’t have this kind of problem,” Senator Tartaglione said. “So I think it’s urgent when we go back to Harrisburg that we move this bill so that at least we know where we stand in each school and what dangers are in each school.”

Philly Refinery Execs Pocketed Big Bonuses as They Laid Off Hundreds of Workers

Top executives from Philadelphia Energy Solutions collected $4.6 million in so-called “retention” bonuses as they shut down operations at the East Coast’s largest oil refinery and plotted its bankruptcy in the aftermath of a late June fire that disabled one of the facility’s more than 30 independent units.

The bonuses were paid as the company laid off hundreds of rank-and-file workers without severance pay and with soon-to-expire health benefits. According to Reuters, which broke news of the bonuses on September 9, CEO Mark Smith pocketed $1.545 million on July 5, two weeks after the June 21 explosions and fire, but two weeks prior to the formal Chapter 11 filing. Smith had been in his position for less than a year.

Senator Christine TartaglioneGeneral Counsel John McShane received $875,500, and CFO Rachel Celiberti received $721,000. Deputy General Counsel Anthony Lagreca received $450,000, while Refinery Manager Daniel Statile received $325,000 after less than four months on the job.

In addition to the retention bonuses, Celiberti received a “spot bonus” of $75,000 on the day of the disaster, while Lagreca received $50,000 on that date.
“It’s repulsive that they did that,” United Steelworkers Local 10-1 President Ryan O’Callaghan told the Inquirer. “While they’re telling everybody else they’re poor, bankrupt, had nothing for severance and cancelled the medical benefits plan, … they stuffed their own pockets.”

Local 10-1 represented about 700 of the refinery’s 1,200 employees. Another 800 contract employees also relied on the facility for work, according to the union leader.
“While the refinery is still on fire, (executives were) not thinking about starting the refinery right then, they’re already thinking about shutting it down,” O’Callaghan said.
In August, the company agreed to set up a “transition fund” of $2.8 million go be divided among impacted union workers, the Inquirer reported.

The newspaper further reported that the executive bonuses were not mentioned explicitly in a bankruptcy plan submitted by the company to the Delaware-based federal court overseeing the proceeding. Rather, the bonuses were “listed without comment in a 204-page financial report submitted to the court.” U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Kevin Gross is presiding. He’s the same jurist who is overseeing the highly publicized bankruptcy of Philadelphia’s Hahnemann Hospital, which was announced on the same day as the PES bankruptcy.

U.S. Chamber: There’s One Available Worker for Every Job Vacancy, But Skills Gap Persists

New data analysis by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has concluded that there is just over one unemployed worker for every job vacancy in the nation.

We Want You - apply nowThe Chamber announced its findings in its latest “Monthly Workforce Monitor” report, posted online September 12. The article stated that there were 1.08 available workers for every job vacancy in July, a slight reduction from 1.09 in June. The 12-month moving average remained at 1.04 for the fourth consecutive month. The current level is about one-third of the historic average of about 2.9 workers for every available job.

“While much attention has been given to the skills gap, our nation also faces a growing people gap – in other words, there simply are too few workers relative to the demand,” the report stated.

Politico noted that the historically small ratio coincides with the historically low national unemployment rate of 3.7 percent. The Chamber’s data derives from research by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The organization has described current labor market conditions as “The Two-Gap Workforce Challenge.”

“The first is a skills gap – too many people lack the skills or credentials necessary to compete for 21st century jobs,” CEO Thomas J. Donohue wrote for the Chamber’s website last November. “The second is a people gap – too many businesses can’t find the workers they need, when and where they need them.”

The July figure counted 6.6 million jobless workers who are actively seeking employment, as well as 1.5 million others who the BLS classifies as “marginally attached” to the workforce. They want jobs, are available for work, and have looked for work within the last year, but not within the last month.

A decade ago, there were about eight workers available for each open job, according to the Chamber.