Christine Stuart photo

About 200 linemen from the International Brotherhood of Electric Workers gathered in downtown Hartford Tuesday to call on Northeast Utilities, the parent company of Connecticut Light & Power and Yankee Gas, to increase staffing levels.

The protest comes as the utility and the union are in negotiations for the contracts of almost 1,000 CL&P workers and 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 benefits.

Frank Cirillo, assistant business manager for IBEW Local 420, said staffing levels haven’t gotten better, they’ve gotten worse. Since the two storms last year the number of linemen is down from 190 to 174 in his local.

“We’re asking for some minimum staffing levels,” Cirillo said. “It’s a regulated company and the politicians should be helping us regulate it and get us the help we need.”

Regulators called Connecticut Light & Power’s response to the storms “deficient and inadequate.”

If the utility hired more people, a lot of the union’s problems would go away and a lot of the utility’s problems would go away as well, Cirillo opined.

Last year, following the two storms, lawmakers and others briefly looked at the issue of staffing, but decided not to include any minimum staffing recommendation in the final storm legislation.

Cirillo believes that was a mistake.

The understaffing forces the utility to keep its reduced number of staff on-call when severe weather threatens the state, Cirillo said. When a lineman is on-call, it means they have to abstain from drinking alcohol and can’t do the things they want to do with their family.

“Your family life goes down the tubes,“ John Unikas, business manager of IBEW Local 420, said. “You can’t go to the beach. You can’t go to family picnics. You have to be ready.”

Bobby Lanese, a lineman from Waterbury, said he’s been on-call almost every other weekend since the storm that hit the Connecticut coast in 2010, which means he misses out on a lot of time with his 14-year-old daughter, and 11-year-old son.

Last May, he said he had tickets for the Yankees-Mets baseball game and he was forced to remain on-call so he couldn’t go with the kids. “My mother-in-law was me,” he joked.

Thomas May, president and CEO of Northeast Utilities, who attended Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s press conference Tuesday afternoon in the Emergency Operations Center dismissed the IBEW’s staffing concerns.

“You’re never going to have as many crews as you need,“ May said. “Every department store hires Christmas help . . . We, like every other business, staff for the work we have to do. That changes over time.”

He said they’re at the bargaining table with the union, which has been working without a contract since June 1.

“I can assure you this is about wages and benefits,” May said.

John Fernandes, assistant business manager of IBEW Local 457, said the dispute is about more than that — it’s about establishing an apprenticeship program. The plan the utility wants to put in place envisions having more linemen, but the utility still hasn’t hired anyone.

“They don’t have enough people in management that come from the field to relate to it,” Fernandes said.

He said his local has only lost about a half dozen linemen since last year’s storms, but what bothers him is it’s not from retirement.

“They’re leaving because they can’t put up with what’s going on and they’re losing quality people because of that,” Fernandes said. “They [CL&P] don’t do exit interviews. We do.”

May admitted the workforce is aging and said the utility has plans to bring back the line schools to train future linemen.

However, Cirillo doesn’t believe that will happen in time. He said the workforce is aging rapidly and it takes about five years to train a lineman.

“We have over 400 linemen at Connecticut Light & Power,” May said. “We resource our crews off of a work plan and off of system needs. We think we have adequate troops. We’re going to add troops. But in this negotiation we’re going to add it on our basis.”

May said the complaints about having to be on-call on weekends are unwarranted.

“These are first responders,” May said. “As I tell my own crews, if your mother was having a heart attack and you needed an EMT and you called up and said ‘could you send me an ambulance?’ And they said, wait a second we’ll call Charlie, Joe, or Mary and see if one of them wants to come pick up the ambulance.”

May said he was out on the road with crews this morning participating in the statewide emergency drill organized by Malloy.

“This exercise was the brainchild of this governor,” May said. “I was a little skeptical of it at first. It was an amazing exercise.”

Three rank-and-file union members, interviewed separately, who met May during his first few weeks in Connecticut, said he called Malloy a “Communist” and painted him as someone who needs to get his nose out of their business.

May chuckled when asked about comments.

“You’re really playing well to the union’s hand is all that I can say,” May said. “It’s absolutely not true.”

May said he has a very good working relationship with the governor and is working with him on other projects such as reviving the City of Hartford. May is a Hartford native.

He said the union made those remarks because they’re “unhappy they can’t get what they want in a union contract.”