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Ohio’s four oil refineries could face onerous new requirements to hire union-only workers under a recently introduced bill.

Refineries often use construction crews to complete turnaround projects, in which the entire processing capacity of a plant is taken offline for inspection, improvements, and catalyst regeneration. Turnarounds are already expensive, constituting the most significant portion of a plant’s yearly maintenance budget. As production is shut down, efficiency is key: companies lose revenue every day the facility is not in operation. But HB 235 would impose even higher costs and regulatory burdens on turnarounds and other construction projects as refineries are forced to contract with crews of union workers. 

While the word “union” is never mentioned in the legislative text, the bill recognizes only participants and graduates of registered, government-approved apprenticeship programs. That means apprentices in similar programs recognized by the refining industry, but not registered with the Ohio government, cannot count toward the new mandatory quotas. 

Apprentices of industry-recognized programs graduate with specialized knowledge and experience, as well as comprehensive safety training. Trade groups, corporations, non-profits and educational institutions collaborate to provide competitive training programs for future industry employees. But the bill unfairly treats these apprentices as inferior workers by banning them from construction projects in the refining industry, putting them at a disadvantage despite no real difference in ability. 

Proponents of HB 235 say that the bill accounts for non-union workers. It is true that Class B skilled journeypersons – trade workers who have acquired at least 10,000 hours in on-the-job experience –  may also count toward the new mandatory quotas. However, 5 years of experience is a high and unnecessary bar to set for construction crews in one of the safest manufacturing industries in the nation. 

Known as the High Hazard Training Certification Act, HB 235 asserts that workplace safety is a major concern in the refining industry and that additional union workers would fix the problem. Yet this notion is a slap in the face to Ohio refiners, which consider safe operations their number one core operating value. In fact, the industry itself is remarkably safe: compared with more than 500 other manufacturing industries, the U.S. refining industry boasts the lowest injury and illness rates, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The data simply do not support a blanket ban on an entire class of apprentices, especially in the name of safety. 

While HB 235 will have little impact on worker safety, it will interfere with efficient operations at Ohio’s four refineries by mandating high quotas of union workers. Beginning in 2022, the bill requires 45% of workers hired for construction projects to have completed registered apprenticeship training. That quota will increase rapidly through 2024, when 80% of project workers must be graduates of a government-approved program. Most industry-recognized apprentices, who have the same skills, will have to find a job somewhere else. 

Meanwhile, the refineries will have to sacrifice significant time and resources to meticulously ensure their quotas are being met. After all, the bill intimidates companies into compliance with harsh penalties. Refineries that do not fulfill their government-mandated quota of union workers face a hefty fine of $10,000 per worker for every day they are not in compliance. 

To make matters worse, HB 235 requires each contractor and subcontractor to submit a compliance report on all workers for every project at an Ohio refinery. Contractors are also expected to maintain a massive database of employee records for up to 3 years after completion of a project, allowing the state to comprehensively enforce its union worker requirements. Information contained in compliance reports will include the names and addresses of the refinery owner and operator, the name and address of all subcontractors working on a construction project, proof certification, and a numerical breakdown of the different types of union apprentices who worked on a project, among several other provisions. 

As America’s labor shortage continues to jam production, Ohio legislators should reject this proposal to burden refineries with needless government mandates and financial penalties in order to address a problem that doesn’t exist. House Bill 235 will not only challenge the economic viability of operating Ohio’s refineries but will also jeopardize the safety of their workers, and their surrounding communities, by taking away their rights to hire the best in the business.