Over the past few years, there had been many companies closing nationwide, but I never thought my employer of twenty years (HOVENSA) would be one of them. The rumor mill had been churning for months. I remained unphased because I had survived so many changes already during my career at the HOVENSA oil refinery— mergers, layoffs, massive organizational transitions, union lockouts, a few horrible bosses, company politics, maternity leave, and even divorce.
I remember that day so vividly. My cubicle’s phone rang. My ex-husband, who worked in the refinery for just as long as I had, says: Well, this is the end. A little annoyed, I replied: WHAT’s the end? He then dropped the bomb: The refinery just announced that they are closing on April 20. With an instant sense of uneasiness, I said: You’re shittin’ me, right?
He was not. Within five minutes, the phones were ringing like mad. People walking down the halls asking if we had just heard the company’s announcement. I swear in less and one hour all 3,000 employees in that plant – once one of the world’s largest – had learned of the harrowing news. I heard there were people in tears. Very understandable, given there were some who had just dropped off their kid to college. There was one person who had allegedly sold everything they owned and relocated to our beautiful beautiful St. Croix to work at the refinery. Imagine that. Life, as well all knew it, changed in a matter of moments.
The nostalgia associated with how long our refinery cohort had all worked there was overwhelming. Many of us had been there from the onset of construction of what had originally started out as Hess Oil — the Mothership that served as the umbrella overseeing all the contracting companies some of us had navigated through as far back as the 1970s.
Still in shock from this news that frankly hit like lightening, I walked to the back of the medical unit trailer I worked at. As I stood there watching the normal workflow of machine shop technicians pickup up equipment from the laydown yard —steel pieces, pipe spools, valves, and fittings placed neatly and everywhere and properly coded. Self-assured, in their stiff navy blue Nomex coveralls, pondering how many more holes they’ll need to drill through thick steel plates before they punch out for the day. And wondering if the “roach coach” will offer Saltfish & Dumplings for lunch today on the menu.
Yet, there was a stunned silence in the air. I could not help but think what will become of these hundreds of workers who knew no other type of work but this. We lived on a small island where HOVENSA was the most lucrative employer for craftsmen, many who did not have a formal education. For most of us, working at the refinery had become part of our identity. At that moment, I was more worried about them than my own fate.
I found myself wishing there was a panic button I could hit to fix this, but this was real. Very real.
I stood there frozen for quite a while, and witnessed the office scandalmongering materialize into full melee mode. Melee for Crucians is another word for gossip. Our office was near the West side of the refinery near the former Martin Marietta site, which had a huge walking park for residents to enjoy. I always liked to have my lunch on the footsteps of the door I was standing on, just to get some sunshine and enjoy the view of the forested landscape.
Nevertheless, on that day, at that moment, my senses were more heightened. I noticed the tones of the blue dancing midday sky. I noticed the green and yellows of the beautiful Trumpetbush plants that seemed to flirt wildly with each other. The Frangipani trees standing stoic with boughs and branches dappled in pink flowers budding forth.
The door opened suddenly and my co-worker of 15 years said: Oh, there you are. Your husband is on the phone. That’s my new husband, by the way. He was away working in Dubai at the time, so whenever he called, she knew to find me fast. ?
My husband’s reaction was actually one of delight because for him it meant I could finally move to Dubai. I smiled wildly as we talked on the phone. Being apart was hard. Some say that LDRs just don’t ever work out. However, between the many hours of meaningful Skype talks and several 16 hour flights per year, we were committed to making it work. Five years down the road, we are still here in Dubai – living, loving, and working.
Two months later, even though the refinery had quite a few postmortem job placement initiatives lined up, I was hard-pressed to do something different. Moreover, the recruiters brought in to help us look for new jobs did not have possible employers lined up in the Middle East, but instead in the petrochemical panhandle in the mainland U.S. Despite the horrible sinking feeling in my stomach caused by the worry that I had no college degree and no solid backup plan on how I was going to continue earning income beyond the refinery I had worked at for so many years, I remained calm and starting researching all my options. I was prepared to walk out of that plant into the unknown.
But I was not the only one with that feeling, I’m sure. There were so many just like me. There was John* who had worked there since he graduated from high school. There was Mr. Peter who had worked here since the refinery opened in 1969. All four of his sons had worked there too, and recently his grandson started in the operations department. There was Dave who transferred from his contracting company in Louisiana and fell in love with the island and vowed to never leave. There was Stanley, the jovial Welder who was a charmer with the office ladies. There was that one guy who had fathered children with three different women in the refinery. There was that manager who had a nervous tick and always repeated the same story in his presentations. And there was Joe, the timekeeper who brought me Chickpea Doubles every morning while I was pregnant with my son. All of these people were in a similar predicament.
I felt bad for everyone. Some workers really seemed to be coming apart at the seams over the news. I saw this one office clerk start fidgeting more than normal and I even heard this one Supervisor suffered a stroke the day after he heard the news.
I began to deliberate over my own career. The reality was after 20 years of the working the 9 to 5 lifestyle, I felt stifled. At day’s end in that structured corporate world, there was not much room for creativity left for me. Luckily, over the years, I had dabbled a bit in writing résumés as a side gig. I had good reviews on my work. And then, just like that came an ah-ha moment! Eureka! I’ll freelance from home as a Business Support Specialist and Résumé Stylist!
The world is my oyster – I thought – I can do anything I put my mind to from here on. 🙂
In my early days (before the refinery closure) it was never a full-time gig for me, but it allowed me to work to my own tune and earn an income. I later began growing my small-scale biz using social media and via word-of-mouth from former clients. Not always necessarily in this order, but here’s how my typical day for the past few years has gone:
Cup A Joe. Quick exercise routine. Check in with emails, messages, local news. Start client work. Schoolwork. Throw clothes in wash. Back to PC for more client/schoolwork. Put clothes to dry. Prep dinner. Back to PC for more client/schoolwork. Quick stretch break in between. STOP and take a break to eat lunch. Do the “weather check” with hubby. Do a little cleaning in between, which I also stretch out over the course of the week.
I went from the monotonous routine of getting up at 5 am, treading the same path to the same office every day, saying the same Good Mawnins to people I did not necessarily all like, tethering to a cubicle with dull florescent lights for at least 8 hours each day to FREEDOM.
I say freedom because though I still have daily and weekly deadlines, I get to choose my own work adventures each day. I’m in my own domain now and I get to dictate how I color my bubble, when I can eat, and don’t have to comb my hair – which I loathe. ?
Dolly Parton was sure right. Working 9-5 is a crazy way to make a living. I am grateful that I no longer have a 40-hour work corporate routine. I can definitely say that I love not having to get up religiously at the same time as I did for so many years. Going back to that one day sitting on the door of my trailer, I realize that at that moment of feeling peace and calmness as I looked out into the tropical landscape from my jobsite, I really did have a Damascene moment that laid the foundation for the career and the life transformation that was ahead of me, unbeknownst.
Fast forward to 2017, five years after Hovensa’s refinery shutdown, I have used my time to wrap up my undergraduate studies in Organizational Management and to develop an online business with the skillset I already had. I’ve heard quite a few went on to do the same, opening their own businesses. Some retired. Some got even better paying jobs away from St. Croix, and sadly, some have passed away.
Have you ever experienced a loss of job of this nature? How did you survive? Please share any tips and advice for any of our readers.
* Some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.