There is nothing in the collective bargaining agreement with Connecticut Light & Power to restrict the work hours of the linesmen, Frank Cirillo, business manager of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 420, said Wednesday.
He said it’s Connecticut Light & Power’s policy to mandate that union labor work shifts of 16 hours on the job and 8 hours off.
The policy may have contributed to the lights being off in portions of the state since Tropical Storm Irene hit on Sunday and has frustrated customers, as well as the union.
As of Wednesday morning power had been restored to 575,000 CL&P customers, but there were still about 305,000 without service.
In previous storms the policy was not enforced, Cirillo said Wednesday. Up until two years ago, if a storm that knocked out power to a large portion of the state, then linesmen would work until power was restored, he said.
“They try to fool people and say it’s about safety, but it’s not,” Cirillo said.
Janine Saunders, a spokeswoman for CL&P, disputed the claim saying the policy was absolutely about safety.
She said a linesman was electrocuted on the job during the cleanup after Hurricane Gloria in 1985 and one of the contributing factors was fatigue. She said the eight-hour rest period ensures the safety of the linesmen and the public.
But Cirillo said a lot has changed since Hurricane Gloria.
For one, the state has deregulated the marketplace and CL&P is no longer a generator of electricity, which means the company is paid regardless of whether the power is on or off. Cirillo said there is no financial motivation to turn the lights back on quickly like there was back in 1985.
Secondly, the company won an exemption from the federal government in 2004 that allowed linesmen drive commercial vehicles longer than the 16 hour limit mandated by federal law.
If they claim the work-hour restriction is for safety reasons, “they’re lying,” Cirillo said.
Saunders was unable to speak to the commercial drivers license exemption.
But she said the company is working hard to bring crews in from other states to restore power as quickly as possible.
Cirillo said CL&P has crews coming from as far away as Vancouver and many are using the company’s vehicles and equipment. He said his workers are being asked to use their own vehicles to go out and guard downed wires until crews can come and get them back up.
“It’s frustrating when we have men and women ready to work,” Cirillo said.
Click here to read his letter to Malloy. Cirillo asks to have a conversation about mandatory levels of linemen.
He said there are times where union employees with two hours left on their shift will ask to restore power to 1,000 more homes and will be told by the company to go home. There have also been times where they’ve been unable to complete any work because a tree crew is unable to make it safe for them to do do.
Saunders said many of the mutual aid crews are coming into the state with their own equipment.
“We are successful as a company when our customers are happy,” Saunders said. “We recognize our success is dependent on them.”
Saunders said she is among those CL&P customers without electricity at home.
Another CL&P customer without power is U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal.
The power went out at Blumenthal’s Greenwich home during the storm on Sunday and has yet to be restored.
“Really all of Connecticut is asking the question, ‘Why?” Blumenthal said Wednesday during his visit to Bristol.
He said he is concerned about the staffing levels at the utility companies and will be writing to the federal Department of Energy and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to take a look at the situation and what transpired during the 24 to 48 hours after the storm hit with the deployment of the workers.
Cirillo said his workers want to restore power as quickly and safely to their neighbors, friends, and family members as they can. He said there is a sense of dedication and his workers are continually trying to work, but they are sometimes being told to stop.
He said there are fewer linesmen now than there were in 1976 when the company had fewer customers.
In 2007, Cirillo testified before the legislature’s Energy and Technology Committee and told them that in 1976 — with around 850,000 customers — there were 430 linesmen. In 2005, with 1.2 million customers, CL&P was down to 190 linesmen.
Currently, CL&P has 220 crews and has brought in another 770 crews from other states to help restore power. It is still working to bring in more out-of-state help.
Jeff Butler, CEO of CL&P, said Tuesday that he expects most customers to have power restored by Saturday, but about 100,000 could be without power until next week.
Bristol Mayor Art Ward said that municipal leaders expressed a lot of frustration about the response and coordination of the utilities during a conference call Monday with Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.
“It seemed like there was a total lack of communication between the rank-and-file, if you will, and management,” Ward said.
As an example, she said that when he called about the elderly housing development on his street, power was restored two hours later. But the liaison for CL&P called the next day and asked for the address so that they could get a crew out to fix it.
“It seemed like the left didn’t know what the right was doing,” Ward said. “If they had a plan I don’t think it was viable.”
At a press conference Monday, Malloy said he believed that profit-driven attrition has left both United Illuminating and CL&P without enough staff to deal with emergencies like Tropical Storm Irene.
“I suspect that the industry has changed to such an extent that that may be the case,” Malloy said. “I suspect it is the case. I also know that we pay very high rates for energy particularly on generating side.”
He said his involvement with energy issues in the state during his time as mayor and governor drove him to create the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.
“I think it was folly to have maintained as our governmental primary energy development body the old DPUC model when we had deregulated,” he said.