Union officials told Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s Two Storm Panel Friday that working 16 hours with a mandatory eight hour rest period – to avoid coming back on double-time – hindered the ability of crews to restore power quickly during the October snowstorm
“Since 2009, the arrival of Jeffrey D. Butler, Connecticut Light & Power Company has handled storm restoration different than in previous years,“ John Unikas, business manager for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 420, told the panel.
The March 2010 storm, which caused power outages in southwestern Connecticut, the June 2011 storm, which impacted Greater New Milford, Tropical Storm Irene and the October snowstorm all took much longer to restore power than usual, Unikas said.
He opined that the reason restoration has taken longer is because the number of linemen have been reduced and work hours were restricted.
“Previous to 2009 linemen have worked 18 to 20 hour days,” Unikas said. Now they are expected to work 16 hours with a mandatory eight hour rest period.
He said the reason they had a bigger window of time to work is because if they restored power to a neighborhood and one customer was still out of power they would work to make sure the lights were restored for two reasons. “One, we didn’t want to leave you in the dark, and two we didn’t want to have to send a crew back there the next day wasting all that time,“ he said.
He said 18 to 20 hours days and six hour rest periods were typical when he was a lineman.
Mitch Gross, spokesman for CL&P, said Friday that’s not true. He said it’s a safety issue and the 16/8 policy has always been the company’s policy even before Mr. Butler arrived.
“That’s the policy we are enforcing,” Gross said.
Frank Cirillo, assistant business manager for IBEW Local 420, said the relationship between the company and the unions was soured when Butler refused to address any union issues with the union. Instead, he let Northeast Utilities handle that relationship, Cirillo said.
Cirillo said he didn’t want to blame any one particular individual though because he views it as an overall management issue.
Moses Rams, president of the Utility Workers Union of America Local 470-1, which represents the 100 linemen working for United Illuminating said he believes his company did a good job restoring power during the last storm. He said the union and UI get along well and that relationship may help the company communicate and respond better to emergencies.
That doesn’t seem to the case with the IBEW and Connecticut Light & Power.
“What the difference in this storm came down to was the shareholders versus the customers,” John Fernandez, assistant business manager of International Association of Electrical Workers Local 457, told the panel. “To favor one comes at the expense of the other.”
Fernandez’s union also represents linemen working for Norwich and Wallingford’s municipal electrical companies and he was told by the linemen down there they worked until the power was restored.
Rams said that UI was already doing restoration during the storm on Saturday after the snow stopped falling. He said work hour policy is generally 16 on and 8 off, but he said UI isn’t going to stop them they’re close to finishing up a neighborhood.
But it took CL&P almost 48 hours just to assess the damage in its 149 town service area, union officials said. Linemen were sent home during the first eight hours of the storm, Cirillo told the panel.
“So clearly it’s an economic issue,” Joe McGee, chairman of the Two Storm Panel, said.
“No other way to put it. Absolutely,” Fernandez replied.
“I just wanted to put it on the record,” McGee said.
And there’s few people lining up to become linemen.
Fernandez said the linemen working out there also look like him with gray hair because CL&P has not come up with an attrition policy. He said it’s a young man’s job. It’s an issue the Department of Public Utility Control raised with the company back in 2008 when it said the number of linemen the company had at the time was adequate. However, the ranks of linemen are even thinner now than they were just three years ago.
There are 394 linemen working for CL&P according to the two unions. In 1985 during Hurricane Gloria there were 538 linemen working for the company and the unions would like to see it return to 1975 staffing levels, which were even higher.
“It’s about numbers, percentages. It’s not about the customer,” Fernandez said.
He said he understands from Tuesday’s hearing that the company is bringing in an independent consultant to review its performance during the storm, but every time they hire a consultant or the state hires a consultant like it did after the March 2010 storm, the report says the same thing.
“In the past 10 years, every single time they do that communication is the number one issue,” Fernandez said. “It hasn’t changed. They haven’t addressed it. It gets worse.”
“This is a regulated company. It needs to be regulated,” he added.
According to a special 1985 edition of Scope magazine, a publication of Northeast Utilities, one of the lessons learned from Hurricane Gloria was communications.
“I believe that the major lesson Northeast Utilities learned is that we need to continue refining our communications with our customers about service restoration,” the article reads. “We know that some municipalities are concerned we did not keep them adequately informed prior to the arrival of the storm and during the restoration process.”
The complaints sound familiar to complaints expressed by customers and municipal officials after the pre-Halloween snowstorm.
But even during Gloria, which took out power to more than half of CL&P’s customers back in 1985, 50 percent were restored within 44 hours, Cirillo pointed out. During the October storm few customers had been restored within the first 48 hours.
Cirillo said not much has changed over the years. The job the linemen do what they did several decades ago.