Agrium overtime adding up

Employees say staff is thinner; management says 'We're doing OK'

Posted: Sunday, June 19, 2005

According to some employees, the staff at Agrium is getting thinner.

After months of anticipating losing their jobs, many employees have voluntarily quit to take new jobs, which has led to increased overtime and left some remaining workers short of help and concerned about future loss of co-workers, some have said.

A person on the management staff says the plant is not yet short-staffed.

Superintendent of Human Re-sources Don Zacharias said the plant still has enough employees.

"We're doing OK, we're doing fine," Zacharias said.

Mike Sibley, an operator at Agrium, said Plant 1 workers are feeling a crunch and some are working a lot of overtime. Plant 1 is an ammonia plant. Sibley pointed out that people working overtime are doing it voluntarily.

However, that time still needs to be filled.

Operators are the people who run the plants. Board operators are qualified in all areas of operating their assigned plant.

"The end result is that you have some people working 18-hour days," Sibley said. "It's pretty tough to be on the ball when you're running that thin. In my opinion, that's an unsafe situation."

When overtime is needed, the company requests volunteers to continue working or to come in early, Sibley said.

He said operators typically work seven days on and then have seven days off. But now, he said many are working up to three weeks in a row to meet the staffing requirements.

"I think that's a future risk," Zacharias said, responding to a question about whether Agrium is short staffed. "We're not there yet."

He said the company is working on developing a plan to deal with the possibility that it may be short-staffed in the future.

Responding to a question about the plant having increased levels of attrition, Zacharias said increased attrition is to be expected because people are anticipating losing their jobs. He added there seems to be a lot of hiring from the other oil and gas companies and that Agrium employees are pursuing those opportunities.

Agrium overtime records provided to the Clarion by employees show overtime due to minimum plant staffing has increased from 172 hours in January to 996 hours in May. For this month, through Wednesday, employees had worked 528 hours of overtime for the same reason, according to the documents.

To deal with that loss, the company has brought back employees who left in a scheduled layoff in 2003, Zacharias said.

Sibley said the most experienced operators are the ones getting hired elsewhere.

John Nussbaum, an operator in Plant 5, a urea plant, said remaining operators are getting rotated to different plants and positions to fill a need that requires some to be retrained.

In some instances, he said there are freshly trained operators who — although technically qualified — may lack the years of experience to safely run the new plant they are assigned to.

"We are losing board operators," Nussbaum said, referring to Plant 5. "The experience level is dropping."

He said although many employees have left, there are plenty of people willing to work overtime to save some extra money for when they lose their job.

Agrium announced last year it will close its North Kenai fertilizer plant unless it can secure an additional supply of natural gas at the right price to continue running it.

The company submitted a request for proposals in March offering a higher price to purchase additional gas from Cook Inlet gas producers.

In a March interview, Agrium spokesperson Lisa Parker said the company is looking for additional gas to run the plant through 2009.

Agrium has said it is evaluating the responses and has not yet announced if it will continue operating past Oct. 31, the current shutdown date.

"If they announce that they get gas, for many people out here it will be disappointing news because they have already made arrangements to do different things," Sibley said.

"There's still some people that it would make their day if (Agrium) got additional gas."

Employees were promised they would get a severance package if they stay until the plant shuts down, Sibley said.

Many employees who decided to stay until the end were counting on that severance package, have made plans to move on after the shutdown and are concerned if Agrium gets additional gas they will loose the severance package, he said.

"The benefit of staying with a stable company is not here anymore," he said.

Parker said she did not know if employees would be able to keep their severance packages.

Zacharias said the company has thought about how to properly staff the plant if it does continue to operate but declined to elaborate on how.

He said the safety of employees and the community is Agrium's top priority. If there are not enough people to run the plant, that could be another reason for shutting it down, he said.

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