Although this story is about Pepco, these union-busting practices are common in the public utilities. Seems like it would make sense to demand better service in light of the tax exemptions and hefty rebates these companies make, doesn't it?
On Thursday, 15,091 Washington, D.C.-area residents were without power for the sixth day in a row, according to utility company Pepco spokesman Marcus Beal. As D.C. residents face record heat waves, many are upset and attribute the lack of power to incompetence on Pepco's end. However, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 1900 members claim the failure to restore power outages is due to chronic understaffing and Pepco's shift from hiring union utility workers to non-union temporary contractors.
"We have half the linemen we had 15 years ago," says IBEW Local 1900 Business Agent Jim Griffin, whose union represents 1,150 Pepco workers. "We have been complaining for a very long time. They have relied for a long time on contractors. They are transients, they don't know our system, and we typically have to go behind them to fix their mistakes. It's very frustrating. We take ownership in our work, we make careers out of this."
Griffin says that starting 15 years ago, Pepco stopped hiring workers to replace retiring electrical workers and offered incentive-laden buyout deals to get electricians to retire. In order to address understaffing problems, Pepco has at times hired non-union temporary contractors, instead of hiring new workers. Griffin estimates that Pepco currently employs 1,150 union workers and approximately 400 non-union contractors. The understaffing has led to problems that the IBEW warned about years ago.
"Everything is keyed on dollars and cents profit," warned IBEW Utility Director Jim Hunter back in 2005. "Storm outages are longer, and utilities are asking for more and more help from other utilities. The problem is that other companies are in the same boat. And they are still not hiring."
Despite having a negative -57% tax rate from 2008 to 2010 and making nearly $822 million in profits during that period, Pepco has not hired a sufficient number of electricians to properly maintain the system. Griffin claims the insufficient number of linemen causes Pepco's system to go out more often not just during storms, but on hot summer days when electrical grids are maxed out from air conditioners and fans. When big storms do hit and knock down the system, PEPCO hires outside contractors from far-away states to help in repairs.
"When we have a major storm like this we rely heavily on assistance from other utilities. We have crews coming from Quebec and Oklahoma," says Griffin. "If we had more linemen we wouldn't have to wait three days for some of these crews to arrive. These extended power outages have to do with number of workers Pepco has on their payroll."
Griffin says the understaffing is a "philosophical move" by the company. "It was easier to deal with the contractors than the employees. They can fire them at a moment's notice. Contractors don't get paid very well and they come and they go," says Griffin. "The problem becomes the quality of work. We have story after story of us coming out after contractors and fixing their work."