November 21, 2002

Coulter had it all wrong

Regarding Bill Coulter's Nov. 18 Editorial Page Sounding Board column on unions and the new Department of Homeland Security: Coulter has it all wrong. All unions do it advocate fairness for workers. Protecting America from terrorist has nothing to do with denying workers their union and at the same time he worries about our constitutional right to privacy under the new department. Don't forget the First Amendment to the Constitution and its freedom of assembly rights.

Richard C. Shaw, secretary-treasurer, Harris County AFL-CIO, Houston

Houston Chronicle, November 22, 2002

No, Coulter was right

The Nov. 21 Viewpoints letter ("[Bill] Coulter had it all wrong") from Richard Shaw of the Harris County AFL-CIO, said that "all unions do is advocate fairness for workers."

But that is not quite true.

How about the all the millions unions spend on election campaign propaganda? Coulter's Nov. 18 Sounding Board column ("Homeland security, not job security") was correct.

Edward Stimach, Stafford

 Copyright 2002 Houston Chronicle

  Dec. 20, 2002, 10:10PM

Severance pay vexes Imperial


A dispute over severance pay has clouded the future of the last remaining operations of the Imperial Sugar Co. plant in Sugar Land.

An official with the machinists union expects the plant to close its packaging and distribution operations by the end of the year because union members -- including the 326 refinery workers who have already received their pink slips -- refuse to accept thinner severance checks.

The company, however, hopes to work out the contract dispute and continue running its packaging and distribution center in Sugar Land.

Earlier this month, Imperial announced it is closing its sugar processing plant in Sugar Land by the end of the year, leaving about 100 to run a packaging and distribution operation at the site.

Todd Rogers, president and directing business representative of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers' District Lodge 37 for South Texas, said employees just can't accept the deal Imperial Sugar is offering.

Under the current labor agreement, an employee with 15 or more years of service would receive 1.5 weeks of severance pay for each year of service with no maximum, he said.

But the company wants all of its employees who are leaving to agree to a 20-week maximum of severance benefits, he said. That would mean that an employee with 30 years of service -- a common situation in the plant -- would receive 20 weeks of severance pay instead of 45 weeks, he said.

"They're blackmailing us," said Rogers. "They're telling us if we don't accept their package, they'll close the facility and not pay anyone any severance pay."

But Duffy Smith, executive vice president of Imperial Sugar, contended that the current contract doesn't even call for severance payments.

Employees only get severance payments if they lose their jobs because of high technology investments, which isn't the case here, he said.

While Rogers disagrees with the interpretation of that provision, he said another sticking point in the company's proposal is that Imperial wants to impose a new three-tier wage structure that would lower the wages of some employees as much as $4 an hour, reducing their wages from $19 an hour to $15 an hour.

He added that employees who earn between $14 and $15 an hour would have their wages boosted as much as 70 cents an hour. The wages of about half of the employees would remain frozen.

Rogers said the company also wants to hire an undetermined number of subcontractors to do some of the remaining jobs.

While Smith said he didn't want to reveal details of the contract, he said companies need the flexibility of subcontracting.

"We have a very fair offer in front of the union now, including a fair severance package," said Smith.

"We're getting calls from members who are interested in it," he said, but they're not being allowed to vote. Once they've heard the details, Smith said he's confident that employees will approve it.

Rogers said if the plant completely shuts down and the company doesn't provide severance under the current contract, he plans to take it to arbitration.


 Copyright 2002 Houston Chronicle

  Jan. 9, 2003, 10:52PM

Bill would allow industry access to injury claims

Associated Press

AUSTIN (AP) -- A bill that would give companies more power to collect injury and workers' compensation information from job applicants and employees has labor groups fearing workers will be blacklisted and kept off the job.

The industry behind the bill, the International Association of Drilling Contractors, and the bill's sponsor, Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, say the intent is to prevent fraud. However, recent statistics show insurance carriers and health care providers are far more frequently cited for violations than workers.

Chisum said employers have a right to know about an applicant's workers' compensation history if it is relevant to the job.

For example, a person with multiple back injury claims should not be put on a job with heavy lifting, Chisum said.

"I don't know how you can be against anybody knowing employment history in that area," he said.

Disclosure also would help prevent workers from trying to collect twice on the same injury, he said.

But according to statistics provided by the Texas Workers' Compensation Commission, insurance carriers and health care providers were cited for workers' compensation violations 1,814 times in 2001, compared with just 59 times for workers and employers.

The Texas AFL-CIO and other labor interest groups worry companies would refuse to hire workers with claim histories, making it even harder to get back on the job. Union spokesman Ed Sills called the bill a "scarlet letter" for injured workers.

"It seems like an effort to weed out people who are seen as weak because they've been hurt before," Sills said.

Current law has tight protections on injury information in most cases, Workers' Compensation Commission spokeswoman Linda McKee said.

Under Chisum's bill, an employer would be allowed to ask an applicant to provide information on any injury, disability or other medical condition that directly relates to job qualifications.

Workers could be asked to disclose previous injuries and claims that paid benefits in Texas or elsewhere. They must answer truthfully or risk forfeiting their right to any future claims.

If requested, the bill would require the Workers' Compensation Commission to give companies information on an employee claim made in the past five years.

The bill also would give companies immunity from lawsuits if they used the information in deciding not to hire an applicant.

Bill Hedrick, manager of health and safety at Houston-based Rowan Companies, an offshore and land drilling contractor, said the bill is designed to reduce fraudulent claims and to collect information on injuries and claims relevant to doing a particular job.

"This is about honest disclosure where common sense enters the equation," Hedrick said. "No one's on a witch hunt to obtain someone's complete medical history."

Labor groups question whether the bill would violate the Americans with Disabilities Act or other medical privacy protections.

Hedrick says it wouldn't, noting that Chisum's bill is similar to laws in Louisiana and maritime law, which govern injuries on vessels such as oil rigs.

"This is not something new," he said.

Dan Lambe, executive director of the consumer group Texas Watch, called the bill a step backward for employee rights.

"Companies could blacklist workers based on any past medical history without any fear of accountability or responsibility or punishment," Lambe said.