Electrical workers are set to picket Connecticut Light & Power and Yankee Gas Tuesday as part of an ongoing dispute over appropriate staffing levels at the utilities.
The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers has been sounding alarms over the number of workers its parent company, Northeast Utilities, maintains for the last decade. But their concerns intensified last year when two devastating storms left thousands of Connecticut residents without power, many for more than a week.
According to the union, dozens of IBEW workers will march from State House Square to Northeast Utilities headquarters in Hartford to protest what they consider to be “dangerously low staffing levels” and other cost-cutting decisions.
“It’s not rocket science – when you continue to cut corners and reduce the number of workers in order to make more profits – you see the types of repeated power outages that Connecticut residents have experienced over the past year,” John Fernandes, business manager of IBEW Local 457, said. “The ratepayers deserve better.”
“It’s clear that CL&P has chosen profits over preparedness and we’re hosting this picket to let CL&P know that these actions are unacceptable,” Fernandes added.
The picket will end one hour before Gov. Dannel P. Malloy reports the results of the statewide emergency preparedness drill, part of the state’s response to last year’s storms.
The workers intend to protest the low staffing levels, the replacement of positions with out-of-state contractors, and forced overtime, according to a union press release.
However, Mitch Gross, a spokesman for CL&P, said the union is trying to distort the issues.
“Our staffing levels are in line with leading utility standards and when major storms hit, we do call on other utilities and extra crews to help us restore power as quickly and safely as possible,” Gross said in a statement.
The protest comes as the utility and the union are in negotiations for the contracts of almost 1,000 CL&P workers around 400 Yankee Gas workers. Both groups are currently working without contracts. The union accused the utilities of asking for unreasonable concessions on everything from staffing levels to healthcare and retirement benefits.
“These demands come as CL&P continues to struggle with ongoing power outages, including several during the past month. It also comes amid ongoing criticism of its handling of two major storms last fall,” the IBEW press release said.
Gross said Northeast Utilities has been negotiating in good faith at the bargaining table.
“Our top priority is to reach a contract agreement that is good for our customers and our employees, who currently enjoy a comprehensive benefits package and good wages,” he said.
Northeast Utilities has been under increased government scrutiny since last year’s storms. At the recommendation of a two storm panel commissioned by the governor, the legislature passed a bill this year authorizing regulators at the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority to develop performance standards to hold utilities accountable in the aftermath of disasters.
Last month Attorney General George Jepsen called on PURA to impose “meaningful penalties” on CL&P following regulators’ review of the utility’s response to last year’s storms.
“This investigation gives us the opportunity to reverse a trend of mismanagement and unpreparedness in our utility companies,” Jepsen said in a June 11 statement. “In the case of CL&P, I firmly believe that those penalties must be large enough to be meaningful and to strongly incentivize the company to improve its performance.”
PURA is expected to issue a final ruling on CL&P’s response to the storms on Wednesday. A draft decision issued two weeks ago found the utility “deficient and inadequate” in its preparation and response. The final decision will have an impact on the company next time it asks for a rate increase or if it attempts to recover costs it incurred as a result of the storms, according to a press release from PURA.