From the Editor: Bearer of bad news

My neighbor’s father worked at Philadelphia Energy Solutions. 

He’d been employed as a union ironworker for 15 years and as a non-union laborer for five years prior to that. But for 20 years, even though the roles of the job changed and the pay was gradual, he worked for the same company. 

Steady, secure labor he was able to raise a family on. 

Then came the June explosion at the refinery. 

My neighbor asked me to keep his name anonymous as he’s a Jr. and says his dad is afraid and paranoid that putting his sentiments out about working there — even through his son — could lead to repercussions. I asked what repercussions, considering many of the 1,100 people that were laid off weren’t given severances or health benefits and have been stressed out over concern of their next move.

But apparently, that’s not punishment enough. 

“My dad tried to cash in all of his unused days and at first, they tried to tell him he couldn’t,” my neighbor told me as we shared a beer on my stoop on Tuesday night. I knew his dad worked there from a conversation we had earlier this summer where he said he was fortunate that his father wasn’t there the morning of the explosion. “He’d been there for such a good part of his life and he earned every single one of those days. He’s union, so yeah, he got them, but when they tried to fight him on it, we knew that was gonna be the first step of some bad things to come.”

He told me his dad was in one of the early waves of the massive layoffs, with plenty of time to spare before the company cried bankruptcy in July and laid off its remaining workers, a bitter ending that can be blamed on workers who were on the ground that day. Regardless, the rest of the workers — and, by extension, their families — collectively suffered as a result. 

So it was a punch in the gut on Tuesday to my neighbor after I was sitting out front and he pulled up from work and I informed him of the Inquirer report claiming that eight executives of the plant received bonuses totalling over $4 million before the plant filed for bankruptcy.

“Wait, what? Are you serious? You’re full of shit, there’s no way,” he asked, dumbfounded. I then watched his face turn from its pinkish hue to red as I showed him the report on my phone. “I can’t believe that. How come my dad never told me?” 

It’s because his dad never knew. He ended up hearing it from my neighbor. 

“There’s a special place in hell for people like [this],” he said, twisting the beer cap so hard between his fingers I swore he was going to break the skin. “You layoff the entire workforce without severance and then you split $4 million dollars amongst yourselves? Fuck those guys, man.” 

Suddenly, my stoop became a storied recount of instances of the rich getting richer and Philadelphia’s poor getting poorer — from development and gentrification, to migrant workers, to the layoffs at Hahnemann Hospital. 

One beer suddenly turned into two-thirds of my six-pack. 

I’ll never understand how these eight individuals can look at the aftermath of what transpired from that explosion, see the sheer number of lives affected as a result and still feel wholly entitled to a bonus. Shouldn’t the knowledge that people like my neighbor’s father are about to lose their livelihood force you to take a look beyond yourself? I mean, obviously not in this case, but I guess I’m just shocked that someone could be so low. 

To the former union and non-union workers of Philadelphia Energy Solutions, I’m sorry to have to rip off this scab, and I personally apologize if I’m the first person telling you about these greedy bonuses. The ever-expanding wealth of the rich shouldn’t have  arrived on your backs. 

My neighbor noted one thing that especially stuck with me during our sunset conversation. 

When talking about the lives this event affected, he looked at me and said, “Those people might not have made out, but at least they can leave with dignity. These guys get to leave with some money in their pocket, but they have no dignity. Ask me, which one you think is truly worth more?”


  • Kerith Gabriel's Headshot

    Kerith Gabriel is the former editor-in-chief at Philadelphia Weekly but somehow hasn’t figured out that means he doesn’t have to write nearly as much. As a routine contributor, journalism has been in his blood since his beginnings as a sports writer over a decade ago for the Philadelphia Daily News.

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