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Once-busy NGS admin building now eerily vacant

By Krista Allen
Special to the Times

DÁ’DEESTLIN HÓTSAA

Busy workers once filled the offices and cubicles inside the administration building at the Navajo Generating Station. Now, the building is nearly empty, filled with the memories of employees past, but the computers and desks remain.

“There is a sadness,” said Jeanita Tsosie, 59, an accounting technician, who has been working at NGS for 32 years. “All my friends have left.” Calling, emailing, texting, and video-chatting with them aren’t the same as seeing them in person, said Tsosie in an interview with the Navajo Times inside the desolate building.

“You can’t go to lunch with them, you can’t do things out there with them,” she said, pointing out her close friends who have moved on to the Phoenix area. “Then you have people you’ve worked with and left. And it’s just quiet down in my area right now. There’s probably one buyer, one analyst, me, and two payroll (clerks); and the computer people, (as well as three environmental personnel). That’s it.”

Tsosie said all of the offices and cubicles were once occupied by engineers, but now some spaces are occupied by contractors – all new faces. Salt River Project-NGS employees started leaving a couple of months ago, said Tsosie, when the shutdown of the plant was announced. Around 200 employees, including 45 provisional workers, remain on the payroll.

Around 578 employees were on staff before most of them started leaving. Some of the employees, Tsosie, says have been NGS employees for about 40 years. “I don’t know how many contractors we have, but we have a list of them,” Tsosie explained. “We get them every two weeks when we do payroll, but we’re going down. Out of that (number), it’s about 150. Out of 150, I don’t know how many people are retiring and how many are still looking for a job. There could be 30 retirees, we don’t know. They don’t announce their retirement.”

Tsosie was supposed to transition to SGS North America, whose website describes it as the world’s leading inspection, verification, testing and certification company, where she would have also been an accounting technician. She declined the offer and decided to stay home to maintain her livestock and care for her young adopted children.

“I can’t leave and take my whole group up (to Phoenix) and I can’t leave my ranch, where I have a house,” Tsosie said. “It took me a couple days, two days to think about it. I really, really, deeply wanted to go, but (something) inside me said, ‘You can’t, you’ll find other things.’” Tsosie said transitioning to a new job isn’t that easy when one has livestock and children to worry about.

“I think if you’re in that situation (as a single person), you’re OK, you can do it, but when you have a family, you can’t do it,” Tsosie said. “It’s the livestock that keeps me here.” Tsosie started working in the mailroom as a mail clerk for $4.87 an hour at NGS when she was 27 years old. A year later, her pay rate rose to around $6 an hour while she took night classes to advance her career at NGS. When a payroll position opened up, she took the job.

“The insurance is really good. Dental insurance, vision – it’s all good. You’ve got 401(k) and pension to build up,” Tsosie added. “And the money’s good. People are good to me and my bosses have been good to me.” Alfred Curley, from Kaibeto, Arizona, had been working at NGS for nearly 38 years. He got a job as a laborer at the plant in the early 80s and then took an apprenticeship in the plant mechanic field.

“So I have a certification as a plant mechanic that I graduated with in the early 90s,” Curley said. “And I went on to become a journeyman. That’s how I worked my way into upper level.”

Curley has a house not far from the plant in LeChee, Arizona, where he and his wife have been calling home because of their jobs at the plant. His wife, Marie Nez Curley, also started at NGS as a laborer and worked her way up to an industrial electrician through an apprenticeship program.

Just this past spring, their daughter graduated with a bachelor’s in electrical engineering from Arizona State University, as a result of hands-on training at NGS during her high school education. “She’s working on her master’s now and NASA offered her a job,” Curley said. “She’s one of the very few Native Americans to get hired and she took training in Houston, Texas, over the summer. But me, I’m a plant mechanic.”

Curley said Marie was recently redeployed to Phoenix and he was left alone to take care of their home and livestock. “It’s hard for me to go back and forth,” said Curley, who will be leaving for Phoenix early this month. “Every Thursday I have to take off and be with the family down there.

So getting redeployed down there, who’s going to take care of my house? It’s still going to put pressure on me.” Curley added, “It’s affecting a lot of people on the Navajo Nation, especially right here (in Western Navajo). When this (plant) shuts down, I don’t know what’s going to happen from there on. So, we just got to take it one day at the time, and step by step to see where it leads the Nation.”

A grand opening of the Northern Arizona Regional Re-Employment Center took place in early August, during which regional leaders such as U.S. Rep. Tom O’Halleran, Coconino County Supervisor Lena Fowler, and Page Mayor Levi Tappan announced that the center is open to those who are seeking a job, especially NGS employees who still need.

“SRP has provided so many jobs, memories, and opportunities to our city,” Tappan said. “Memories (such as) Page Attacks Trash, thousands of dollars for local scholarships, thousands of dollars to local nonprofits like Elks Lodge, the food bank – how many people would go without Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners without SRP?” Tappan said the closing of the plant marks the end of an era, and a big transition for his town, which was built in 1957 to accommodate workers on the Glen Canyon Dam. Many of those jobs were later replaced by work at NGS in the early 1970s.

“No one goes home until the work is complete,” Tappan said. “SRP’s commitment (is) to be here in the long term to help this transition and help as much in the community and in the Navajo Nation as we can,” said Hank Courtright, an executive manager for SRP. “One of the things that is interesting here: The workforce collaboration brings together retraining dollars and gets support of the family, spouses, and just helps everybody after NGS closes. We realize it’s a difficult situation and we think there’s a lot of possibility for the future.”

O’Halleran agreed saying this transition is a difficult process, and the city of Page and the nearby tribes will not go through it alone. “When you impact families and cities and counties and towns, we have to find a way to address it,” O’Halleran added. “The impact is tremendous. But the main impact is family and that’s what we have to address: Making sure that the families are cared for. And that’s what this next step is about. “Do we wish we would have had more time?” he said. “Yes. Will we learn from this and be able to go out and help other families in the future? Yes. But right now, it’s about you.”

Fowler said the idea of a re-employment center started as a thought knowing that the Native NGS workers would have to relocate. “It affects the population, our demographics,” Fowler said. “It affects our education. These are high-paying jobs, high degrees, it’s going to affect our demographics.”