RELEASE: Fossil fuel layoff: The economic and employment effects of a refinery closure on workers in the Bay Area

UC Berkeley Labor Center


FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: April 26, 2023
Media Contacts: Phoebe Rogers, phoebe.rogers@berlinrosen.com, 914-343-9063
Julie Light, julie.light@berkeley.edu, 415-215-5737

UC Berkeley report on Bay Area refinery closure provides groundbreaking case study, worker-centered recommendations for changing economy


Displaced workers urge state, federal leaders to support growth of high-quality, union jobs, put workers’ needs at center of energy transitions

Berkeley, CA – A new report from the University of California Berkeley Labor Center released Wednesday 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, providing an illuminating case study of the perils and needs of workers in the nation’s changing energy landscape.

Read the report here.

One of the first, in-depth, representative studies of displaced fossil fuel workers, the report by Dr. 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,” said 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, CA 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/hr less than prior to their layoff, the study finds. Another 26 percent of workers remained unemployed one year after their layoff.

Funded by the State of California’s Workforce Development Board, the UC Berkeley study found that 91 percent 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,” said 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,” said report co-author Dr. Virginia 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.”

Marathon Martinez workers struggle to recover post-layoff

The UC Berkeley 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 percent before the layoffs — and nearly one-third took early withdrawal from their retirement accounts to make ends meet.

“I was devastated,” said 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 percent 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.

“Our top priority as a union is keeping our members at work,” said USW District 12 Director Gaylan Prescott, who represents workers in California and 10 other Western states, “but we also fight for workers when the worst happens. Our union is committed both to connecting laid-off oil and gas workers with existing resources and continuing to push employers and policymakers to provide long-term solutions.”

Worker-informed solutions key to an equitable transition

In consultation with former refinery workers interviewed for the study, the UC Berkeley 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 percent 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.

“As Northern California’s major oil refining center with four refineries, nearby impacted communities and numerous connected employers, it is critical that Contra Costa residents, businesses and governments can plan ahead for a clean energy transition and the impact that it will have on working men and women, their families and our community,” said John Gioia, Chair of the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors. “UC Berkeley Labor Center’s report provides valuable research towards the very real impact experienced by workers and their families, and also provides valuable policy recommendations to assist public officials and communities in achieving a just transition to a clean energy economy. I thank the workers for sharing their stories, and I am committed to continue working with impacted refinery workers and community representatives to ensure that their needs and voices are at the center of our work together to plan for the transition to a new clean economy.”

“We have a responsibility to recognize that, as we move towards cleaner sources of energy, hardworking union refinery workers have played a critical role in powering California for generations,” said Chris Markuson, Western States Director of the BlueGreen Alliance. “This report provides valuable insights into the transition challenges workers are likely to face and highlights opportunities to support them and their communities as we build a cleaner and more equitable economy.”

*A copy of the report can be found here. To coordinate interviews with UC Berkeley and UC Irvine experts or participating workers, please contact phoebe.rogers@berlinrosen.com or julie.light@berkeley.edu.*

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Founded in 1964, the UC Berkeley Labor Center works to address the most critical challenges affecting working families in California and across the nation. The Center provides timely, policy-relevant research on labor and employment issues, and carries out training and education programs for labor leaders and students.