On July 30, 2011 over 300 people assembled at a hall in Quartz Hill to apply for jobs with First Solar. On December 30, workers report that 37 locally based members of the crew were told to go home.
By Patric Hedlund
Neenach resident Andrew Anderson, 19 was hired on September 27, 2011 to work with a crew laying out the 230 megawatt Antelope Valley Solar Ranch One (AVSR1) facility near Highway 138 in the Western Antelope Valley.
It is the first major solar farm facility to begin building in the region where 33 companies are said to have expressed interest in developing utility-scale renewable energy farms. Company officials such as Jack Piggott told residents that about 350 workers would be hired during a two to three-year construction phase.
Although young, Anderson is well-experienced in construction, having worked in his father’s company since an early age. He said he was told the job would last two to three years. Each Tuesday, for nearly three months, a direct deposit was received in his bank account for $42 an hour, about $1,800 a week, in accord with federal ‘prevailing wage’ rules governing projects subsidized with federal funds. A $646 million federal loan guarantee was secured by First Solar for AVSR1 about the time that Andrew was hired.
On December 30, however, Andrew and 36 co-workers received an unexpected “Happy New Year’s” present: a pink slip. They were collected about 2 p.m. from their work sites, brought to a meeting area, asked to turn in their identification badges and told to go home.
Anderson was saving for the down payment on a house. “That dream is now crushed,” he said in an interview Wednesday, Jan. 4.
“It was a really big surprise. I thought it would last for a long time and I was shocked. They just told us that work is not needed right now and ‘we’ll give you a call.’ They didn’t tell us much. I just felt confused and I wish everybody well.”
Pigott, who represented the company at Fairmont Town Council meetings, was asked about the layoffs. He said “I can’t respond to that,” and referred the questions to Alan Bernheimer, Corporate Communications Director for First Solar, Inc. Bernheimer wrote in an email, “37 workers were furloughed last Friday. We currently have 151 people working on the site. During the 4th quarter of 2011 there was a surge of construction activity as the project ramped up following start of construction in September. We are now slowing down construction velocity in order to stay on plan for the project’s installation schedule. This change in pace had been planned for a month and has no other intent.”
Anderson said “It was mostly locals that were laid off. There is a good chunk of out-of-state people from Las Vegas and New Mexico, I think they were working with [First Solar] on previous jobs. I didn’t see those people in the [laid off] group.”
First Solar’s Bernheimer replied Wednesday, “There was no favoring of out-of-state workers in determining who was furloughed.” He added: “I know that, before Friday, more than 90% of workers were local hires, not counting First Solar managers. I don’t know today’s percentage and won’t likely get it in time for your deadline, but I have no reason to believe it varies greatly.
“As I said, this change in pace had been planned for a month and has no other intent.”
Speculation among some workers is that the local labor pool is being used as a pawn in negotiations with L.A. County.
Another source who was hired after Anderson, one of about ten from the Mountain Communities of Lake of the Woods, Frazier Park and Pine Mountain, said he is aware of a dispute with the county regarding grading permits. He said the construction technique being used currently is dependent on grading to a totally flat terrain. Leaving elevation variations at the site, allegedly requested by the county, results in a more difficult construction process, he said.
When asked about this, the corporate spokesman said, “We wouldn’t comment on any discussions with the county.”
Bernheimer said that workers are likely to be asked to return in the second quarter of 2012 “as we start installing modules (solar panels),” and “furloughed workers would be the first called back, as they are already trained and experienced with the project,” he said.
The company has been running paid advertisements in The Mountain Enterprise praising itself for providing jobs in the area and quoting workers about how important the jobs have been to their lives.
Meanwhile, The Mountain Enterprise has been reporting about the unexpected reversals experienced by the solar industry following a massive investment by China in conventional solar technology, dropping cost of supplies from $400 to $40 a kilo. First Solar’s stock has dropped from $175 in February to about $33 a share currently.
But First Solar, Inc. has received permits from county governments, with massive loan guarantees from the federal government and sales tax breaks from state government, based largely on promises to bring hundreds of jobs to economically depressed regions.
This is part of the January 06, 2012 online edition of The Mountain Enterprise.
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