About a year after I had joined the electric shop at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma, when it was my week to be the truck driver in Fall of 1984, I had an conversation with a contract electrician that I have never forgotten. It was with a guy named Mark Meeks. I have talked about him before in the post entitled, “Life Cycle of a Power Plant Lump of Coal“.
At the time, Mark was working as a contract help for the electric shop. He had been hired to help Mike Rose and Bill Ennis to work on Freeze Protection. I was driving him to the coal yard. He was telling me how he liked working on a job for a while and then he would move on to do another job working somewhere else.
I replied back that I liked having a job where no one had ever been laid off. The electric company had been in existence for about 70 years and had never had a downsizing. I noticed that when I said that, Mark paused and thought about what I said. I was not surprised when a few weeks later, Mark was hired as a plant electrician in the shop.
I’m not saying that no one was ever fired from a power plant. I’m just saying that there wasn’t a general downsizing where a group of people were laid off. After all. you can’t really ship the jobs overseas. Not when you want to provide electricity to Oklahoma City. So, as long as you did your job and showed up to work on time, you had job until it was time to retire. That type of job security sure felt good.
All good things have to come to an end at some point. Toward the end of 1986, Martin Louthan, the Superintendent over all the Power Plants, came to our plant to talk to us. He told us that when our plant was created, it was engineered so that it would accommodate 6 units. At the time we had two. He said that when they staffed the plant, they hired enough people to operate and maintain four units.
He explained that when the oil boom went bust in 1982, it changed everything. The demand for electricity dropped instead of increased as the company had projected. So, our power plant had too many employees for the foreseeable future. We were going to have to downsize. At the time we had over 350 employees.
I think we all knew that we had too many employees at the time. There was a lot of downtime when the maintenance crews had to look for something to do. There are innumerable “for instances” I could bring up. Like times when a team of welders had to go weld something at the train gate, which would normally take a couple of hours. Instead of having it done by lunch time, the crew would park their truck at the train gate, way out where no one would bother them, and listen to the radio for a week.
There were a lot of times like these where there just wasn’t enough work during a regular work week to keep everyone busy. Everyone seemed to have their own special place where they could go take a nap if they needed one. I think we all figured that they kept us all around because when it came time for overhaul, everyone was hard at work making all kinds of overtime. Anyway. We knew it was true. There were too many employees at our plant. Especially since we weren’t going to be expanding anytime soon.
So, here is how the company decided to downsize the company. They offered everyone a “Voluntary Separation Package.” (Or VSP as we refer to it at Dell where I work today – or I did when I originally wrote this post… Now I work at General Motors who just recently – in 2019 had a VSP of their own). They would give you so many weeks of pay for every year of service you had with the company. I don’t remember the exact amount. The employees had until a certain date to decide.
Employees that were over 55 years old would be able to take an early retirement package that would amount to a normal retirement if they had stayed until they had reached retirement age. Our retirement pension plan had grown large enough that it could comfortably absorb those who would early retire. You had until a certain date when you had to decide whether or not you would take the early retirement.
There was one caveat to the taking the Voluntary Separation Package or the early retirement. You had to decide to take one of these options before you were told if your permanent position with the company was going to be terminated at the end of the year. That is, if by the end of June, if you didn’t take the package, then in July if you were told that your position was being eliminated, then the package and retirement was no longer an option. So, if you doubted your “good standing” with the company, you probably would be inclined on taking the retirement package if you were old enough.
In the electric shop I think we had one person old enough to retire. Bill Ennis. He decided to stick it out and hope that his position would still be around. Bill was a good worker, so if that had anything to do with it, he was in good shape. Only one person in our shop decided to take the Voluntary Separation Package.
It broke my heart the day that Arthur Hammond told me he was going to take the package. He only had three years with the company, so his package wasn’t going to be that big, but there was a lump sum associated with it as well. I explained his decision in the post “Power Plant Arguments with Arthur Hammond“. Arthur was a dear friend of mine. I feared that he hadn’t thought this decision through. On one hand, he was used to moving from job to job like Mark Meeks as a Contract electrician. On the other hand, he was raising a family who would benefit from a stable income without having to move from place to place.
The one an only good thing about Arthur Hammond leaving was that Scott Hubbard moved to the electric shop in his place. This was fortunate for Scott because the testing team was not surviving the downsizing and his position was surely going away. I had a bias toward the testers from their inception because when I was on the labor crew, we had not been allowed to apply for the testing jobs. I was also biased because Scott was replacing my friend Arthur. I explained this in the post: “Take a Note Jan, Said the Supervisor of Power Production“. As it turned out, Scott and I became like brothers. We worked together for years, and carpooled most of the time after he joined the shop.
As a side note. I ‘fessed up to Scott one day while we were driving home from work…. He was driving, and I told Scott, “I just want you to know that when you first came to the electric shop. I didn’t like you. It wasn’t anything you did. I just didn’t like you because you were on the testing team.” When I told Scott that, I could tell that he was uncomfortable and that he felt hurt by what I was saying. He turned his head away from me. I went on…. “When I came to know you while we have worked together, I just want you to know that you have become one of my best friends. I am sorry that I had prejudged you. I just wanted to let you know. I’m glad we are on the same team.”
So, what does this have to do with Bif? Well, Lynn “Bif” Johnson and Mark Meeks were two of the few people left that were told on the “day of reckoning” that their jobs were going way.
I remember how our entire team was called up to the front office. We waited in Leroy Godfrey’s office. (He was early retiring). They called us one at a time to Bill Moler’s office (He was early retiring also). There we were told that who we would be working for.
Gary Wehunt had been sure that he was going to be axed. I think by that time we knew that the electric shop needed to downsize one more person. Gary was shocked when he was told he still had his job. He was going to be working for Andy Tubbs on the same team I was on. — Of course, in my own cocky 26 year old way, I never thought I would be let go.
Mark Meeks was told he would no longer be employed at the end of the year. The same was true for Bif Johnson. The company offered to help find a job somewhere in the company if there was position left vacant that needed a person with your skills. They also provided a service to help you create a resume and would help you find a job so that by the end of the year, you wouldn’t just be sent packing.
Mark called up some of his contract buddies and was soon on his way to another job. He had been a contract electrician for so long, this was “Situation Normal” (which is the first two words for the acronym “SNAFU”) for him. I thought it was ironic that he should be the one person from the electric shop that was laid off when I knew that the reason he had applied for the position in the first place was most likely because he thought he could be there until he retired, as we had discussed that day in the truck a couple of years earlier.
I later learned that before Leroy Godfrey early retired he had singled out Mark Meeks and had seen to it that he was the person that was going to be laid off because he had said something to Leroy one day that had annoyed him. Much like the comment I had made to Leroy one day when he went to Bill Bennett and told him to fire me. See the Post: “Chief Among the Power Plant Machinists ” As Bill Bennett explained. Leroy wanted to make sure that Mark was included in the downsizing. It was his gift to him.
So, what about Bif? With all the help offered by the company to find a new position and five months to find a new job, what happened to Bif? Well. Bif had the attitude that I had, though he is 10 years older than me. He had it in his mind that for some reason the plant couldn’t do without him…. or maybe it was more like the attitude I have at my current job. “I am going to stay here until you make me leave.” The last day of the year came around…. Bif was no longer working for the electric company.
It seems like there were two people at the plant at the end of the year that had their positions eliminated that decided to remain at the plant up until the last day of the year (Off hand, I have forgotten who the other person was). Neither of them had sought help from the company to find another position in the company or even outside the company. They were really only laid off because they chose to be. The company had offered them every opportunity.
There were a few lessons I learned from the different events that happened during this time. The first was that I shouldn’t dislike someone because of someone else’s decision. It wasn’t Scott Hubbard’s decision not to let labor crew hands apply for the testing positions. I saw the same thing happen at the gas plant in Harrah, Oklahoma when Mel Woodring became the foreman ahead of obviously more qualified electricians. The general feeling was to dislike Mel, but who was it that picked him? Mel didn’t have anything to do with that decision. He was a pawn in an effort to move him out of the Muskogee Plant.
The second was that no matter how much you think you are indispensable, you aren’t. We all knew the saying that if you want to find out how important you are, just put your hand into a bucket of water and pull it out and see what kind of hole you leave. That’s how important you are. — Well…. Archimedes would disagree with this assessment given that the water level in the bucket changed, but that wasn’t the point.
Third, Job Security? What’s that? A Power plant probably still has more job security than most other jobs.
The fourth lesson I learned was that when your friend has decided to make a dumb decision, no matter how much it is going to hurt them in the long run, after you have tried to convince them not to take that route, you have to stand by them as much as possible. I have had some friends in the past make really stupid decisions in their lives. No matter how dumb it is…. remain their friend. How much of a friend are you if you cut and run because of their bad decisions? Like my friend Bob Ray reminds me often…. “You can’t fix stupid.” No. You can’t. But you can be there to help when needed.