State unions blame power repair problems on job cuts
Published 2:20 pm, Thursday, September 1, 2011
Unions that work for the state's electric utilities believe that systematic reductions in line workers at Connecticut Light & Power and the United Illuminating Co. over a number of years have finally caught up with the companies.
The power companies have been slow to restore power to hundreds of thousands of customers because reduced work forces can't be supplemented adequately with mutual-assistance crews from other states, union officials say.
Utility executives and industry representatives said that this week's lingering outages are largely the result of the severity of the historic storm, whose devastating effects were felt across the entire region and into Canada.
John Olsen, president of the state AFL-CIO, called for a state investigation into the extent and length of the outages, including a detailed analysis of CL&P and UI's staffing levels, maintenance procedures and other issues.
Industry analysts contacted Wednesday said that they could not comment on Connecticut staffing levels because they don't know the extent they may account for the delays in restoring power.
Local 420 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, based here, charged this week that CL&P has only a fraction of the line workers it had in the 1970s and in 1985 during Hurricane Gloria.
Frank E. Cirillo, business manager for Local 420, said in interviews this week that even though there is a record 1.2 million CL&P customers, compared to 850,000 in 1976, the number of line workers stands at about 190, a reduction of 240 from 35 years ago.
"It's incredible what's going on," Cirillo said. "If they have to go to Vancouver on the Pacific coast to get line workers, there's a problem here."
Cirillo wrote a letter this week to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, requesting a meeting to review staffing levels, which he said have been dramatically reduced over time, to the point where during emergencies the utilities bring in out-of-state crews rather than pay state workers to perform the repairs.
He estimated that line crews for CL&P have been reduced by 40 to 50 percent since Hurricane Gloria 26 years ago.
The letter, which was obtained from Malloy's office by the Hearst Connecticut Newspapers under the state's Freedom of Information Act, says the staffing levels are so low that even regular line work is subject to backlogs.
Cirillo said that in 2007 state lawmakers were given testimony, which he said the industry did not refute, that Stamford-based line mechanics from CL&P, who numbered 23 in 1986, were reduced to 17 by 2007; the 28 Norwalk-based line mechanics were trimmed to 24; and the 39 mechanics based in Newtown in 1986 were down to 23.
Cirillo, who sharply criticized the General Assembly's 1998 restructuring of the state's energy industry, called for lawmakers to require staffing increases.
UI and CL&P executives acknowledged this week that their work forces are smaller, but they stressed that Hurricane Irene, which became a raging tropical storm, was so extensive that power restoration was bound to be tough.
John J. Prete, senior vice president of UI, said he thought the utility's line crews are down about 10 percent compared to the number of crews that tackled the outages after Hurricane Gloria in 1985.
"Our internal line is not far off from where we were, within percents, 10 percent," Prete said.
He said that crews from Kansas City and Indiana are on the job servicing outages in the UI area, which is centered in Bridgeport and New Haven. "We're just grabbing as we can the crews that we need to do the work and we need more," Prete said.
Jeffrey D. Butler, president and chief operating officer of CL&P, agreed that his company's crews have also decreased since 1985. "I've been in the industry since `79, absolutely I believe it's probably lower," he said. "I can speak for the behalf of the entire industry, there's probably fewer line workers within the utilities today than there were in 1985."
Malloy, during a late-afternoon news conference Wednesday, said that after electric service is restored, there will be plenty of time to examine the state of Connecticut's utilities. But for now, he said, the number of people working to restore power is "spectacular." Asked about the union's staffing charges, the governor said he hadn't seen Local 420's letter.
"How much is too little, I think is a very legitimate question," Malloy said.
William Bryan, a deputy assistant secretary for the U.S. Department of Energy, who traveled Wednesday with Malloy when the governor toured eastern Connecticut, said that nationally a storm of Irene's magnitude causes outages for 60 to 70 percent of affected residents for three to six days, while the rest may wait as long as 10 days to two weeks.
John Olsen, president of the state AFL-CIO, of which the UI line employees from the Utility Workers of America Local 470-1 are members, said this week that many areas of the state remain disasters days after the storm left clear skies.
"I have concerns about safety," Olsen said. "The companies are hiring out-of-state contractors and others who might not be as skilled as our union workers." Olsen said it's clear that the state should investigate staffing levels and other issues, including deferred maintenance and tree pruning and the age of the delivery system.
"We don't have the means to hold accountable the utilities to make sure we have the number of linesmen we need. ..," he said.