Workers Brace For Life After Vermont Yankee

It’s been almost a year since the announcement that Entergy Vermont Yankee would close at the end of 2014. At the time of the announcement, the plant employed 632 people, at salaries well above the norm for southern Vermont.

Some of those workers have left already. Entergy says 572 people were still working at the plant on June 1. About half of them will lose their jobs in January, after the plant shuts down. Others will stay on for another 18 months or so to help place the reactor in protective storage. After that, another major layoff is expected.

At a picnic table on the Newfane Town Common, Marcie Jones took a break from her moving chores to talk about her family’s response to the impending shutdown. Jones has spent much of the summer packing up her home near the village center. She and her husband Derek have lived there for 15 years.

“My kids were born here,” she says. “We weren’t going to leave. But we have to.”

Derek Jones was an operations manager at Vermont Yankee. For the past four months he’s been in central Pennsylvania working at a nuclear power plant there.

“It’s hard,” Marcie Jones says. “He tries to come home when he can, and the kids miss him. But they wanted him to start and I stayed to finish out the school year with the children.”

Jones says her husband could have stayed on after the plant stops operating. But very quickly after Entergy’s announcement, he started getting offers from other nuclear facilities.

“People just said, ‘We hear you’re closing and would you like a job with us?'” Jones says. “And he said ‘No, I’m going to stick it out for a while.’ Then the right offer came along for our family and so we decided to go.”

The couple’s two children were a big part of the decision to leave sooner rather than later. Their oldest is just entering his teens.

“Either we moved him now or in three years when he’s 16,” she says. “It’s a little harder to move a 16-year-old than a 12-year-old.”

Not all Vermont Yankee workers are in such high demand. Vernon resident Ken Farabaugh is a technical advisor to the plant’s site vice president. He says a lot of people are still sending out resumes.

“And frankly, some don’t know from one day to the next whether they’re going to be living in North Carolina, Georgia, Washington State, Texas or wherever,” Farabaugh says. “So especially with people that have kids in school, it’s pretty nerve wracking for them, I’m sure.”

Farabaugh has been in the nuclear industry since the 1970s. He’d been through a couple of plant closings and many moves. When he went to work for Vermont Yankee in 1997, he and his wife Peggy decided, for the sake of their family, that they wouldn’t move again. But as anti-nuclear sentiment and political pressures in the region heated up, they decided they’d need something to fall back on if they wanted to stay.

So the couple started an online business, Vermont Woods Studios, which now employs about a dozen people. The company sells furniture made by local artisans from sustainably grown Vermont wood. They recently opened a showroom in a former Vernon ski lodge.

“When I started the business,” Farabaugh says, “it was simply providing my family with another option, so that I wouldn’t have to go on the road somewhere else while they were here.”

About 80 Vernon residents work at Vermont Yankee. Vernon Select Board Chairwoman Patty O’Donnell says many of them would like to stay in the area.

“There are people here in Vernon whose families have been here for generations, who don’t want to go anywhere,” O’Donnell says. “The trick is, how are they going to find a job in an economy that’s not growing?”

O’Donnell is a longtime Vermont Yankee champion. She says many of the plant’s employees have worked there for decades.

“And with the wonderful package that Yankee has offered and the retention bonuses,” she says, “a lot of them are going to be able to retire and stay here.”

O’Donnell says employees in management positions who stay through next December will receive an additional year’s salary. According to a union spokesman, non-management workers will get nine months’ pay for staying on.

“It’s more the younger people – the operations people and engineers – that are going to have to go to another nuclear power plant if that’s the field they’re going to stay in,” O’Donnell says. “And you’re just not going to replace those kinds of salaries around here.”

O’Donnell says some people have taken jobs an hour or an hour and a half away.

“I even know of people who are talking about maybe going to Plymouth to the plant there and just having a small apartment,” she says. “But their families [would be] staying here and they’ll come home on the weekend.”

Entergy says it’s working to find a job for any worker who wants a job somewhere else in its fleet of power-generating facilities. Back in Newfane, Marcy Jones says her husband had that option. But she says most of the opportunities were in the southern states. She and her husband have family in Pennsylvania. And Jones says the plant where Derek will be working is a dual-unit plant, which means it may be more likely to stay open, at least the kids finish high school.

Jones says she’ll miss Vermont – her friends, her job in the lab at Grace Cottage Hospital and her volunteer work at her children’s school. But she says she won’t miss the controversy and the negative comments about nuclear power that even her kids have had to endure.

“There’s a cost to everything,” she says. “The Priuses with their batteries and the solar panels with the chemicals in them. Windmills – oops, they’re loud and they kill birds. I just feel like in this state the people just want to plug in their appliances and they don’t care where the power comes from as long as it’s not here.”

The only trouble is, she says, her family has put down roots here. And like other Yankee workers and their families, she’s finding it hard to leave.