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COMMENTARY | As the energy landscape shifts toward renewables, a survey of laid off fossil fuel workers documents the challenges they face.
A new report documents the difficult post-layoff job search and working conditions of hundreds of California fossil fuel workers in the aftermath of the 2020 closure of the Marathon Martinez oil refinery in Contra Costa County, California.
The report, from the University of California, Berkeley Labor Center, is case study of the perils and needs of workers in the nation’s changing energy landscape.
One of the first, in-depth, representative studies of displaced fossil fuel workers, the report by Virginia Parks and Ian Baran of UC Irvine draws on a survey of 140 former Marathon workers and nearly two dozen interviews. The study finds that while the laid off workers broadly support the region’s transition to a clean energy economy, they faced significant financial strain, mental health challenges and difficulty securing high-quality, union jobs in the aftermath of the refinery shutdown.
“Oil and gas workers are highly skilled, hard-working experts who have so much to offer in emerging clean industries. We recognize the need for this nationwide change, and we want to be a part of it—but we can’t do it alone,” says Tracy Scott, president of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 5, which represented 345 of the approximately 700 workers laid off at the facility.
“The personal, financial, and generational impact of these closures on working people is immense. Elected leaders must do better, from a public policy standpoint, to ensure those impacted by the transition to a clean economy are supported.”
In October 2020, as the Covid-19 pandemic raged across the country, the Marathon oil refinery in Martinez, California shut down after 100 years of operation. Hundreds of workers were laid off, losing stable, union jobs. While three out of every four former Marathon workers eventually found new work, they made a median $12/hour less than prior to their layoff, the study finds. Another 26% of workers remained unemployed one year after their layoff.
Funded by the State of California’s Workforce Development Board, the study finds that 91% of the surveyed former Marathon workers are willing to enroll in a subsidized training program, but many workers were apprehensive about the efficacy of training in the absence of clear pathways into job opportunities with comparable pay and benefits. The report compiles a set of recommendations for local, state, and federal leaders to better support workers through job and career transitions and lays out a blueprint for leaders to ensure equitable transition to clean energy for all workers.
“California leads the nation in the shift to clean energy,” says Tim Rainey, executive director of the California Workforce Development Board. “Building an economy where working families can prosper requires that elected leaders and employers listen to workers, plan ahead, and get creative in finding solutions that support and empower people as they move into new roles. UC Berkeley’s report offers critical insights about how we can navigate the challenges of our changing economy, based on workers’ real experiences.”
“The energy transition is already happening, but we cannot be transitioning the economy at the expense of workers and the communities they live in,” says Parks. “The experience of the Marathon workers clearly demonstrates the need for proactive, worker-centered policies and supports in order to build a high-road, carbon-neutral economy.”
The study paints a stark picture of the deep financial and personal hardships facing those laid off following the shutdown and repurposing of this oil refinery mid-pandemic. One-third of workers surveyed said they were falling behind financially—up from only 3% before the layoffs—and nearly one-third took early withdrawal from their retirement accounts to make ends meet.
“I was devastated,” says James Feldermann, a former Marathon refinery worker who was laid off. “It’s not losing a job, it’s losing a career. It’s losing where you were going to retire from.”
A majority of respondents also stated that they cycled through two or more jobs in the year after their layoff, and many expressed frustration with the lack of safety protections or union representation in their new jobs. What’s more, a quarter of workers encountered problems applying for or receiving unemployment insurance and another quarter didn’t apply for UI at all.
While all of the workers who responded to the survey were members of United Steelworkers Local 5 during their employment at the Marathon refinery, only 43% held union jobs after the closure. Without the strength of a union behind them, the former Marathon workers reported losing the ability to advocate effectively for better pay, benefits, and training.
In consultation with former refinery workers interviewed for the study, the report compiles a list of recommendations for how federal, state, and local leaders should approach the transition to clean energy and support the growing ranks of displaced workers across California and nationwide. The worker-recommended solutions include:
- Cash support to ensure those laid off by oil refineries can keep their families afloat during transition periods, including extended unemployment benefits, and financial aid to cover the 24% average gap between workers’ pre- and post-layoff wages.
- Skill certification and subsidized training, to help workers transition their expertise and credentials into new sectors and roles that match their years of experience.
- Targeted, individualized job search assistance and affordable training targeted towards oil and gas workers searching for employment in a new sector.
- Financial planning and bridge-to-retirement funding, to both support working families post-layoff and provide full retirement benefits to workers eligible for early retirement following layoff.
- Access to counseling, health care, and transparent communication for workers and their families, including mental health support.
- Empower unions to provide information, communication, and resources to workers transitioning between jobs.
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