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Power outage shines light on union strife

POSTED October 5, 2012 7:04 p.m.

Approximately 49 Turlock Irrigation District customers were without power for as much as 45 hours over the weekend, following a breakdown of the District’s longstanding policy to address outages.

That breakdown came, potentially, due to an ongoing labor dispute between the District and the local International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which represents TID linemen.

“I want to make it clear that the amount of time it took to get customers’ power restored is not acceptable and is by no means a reflection of the reliability or service standards that TID customers expect and deserve,” said TID General Manager Casey Hashimoto.

When the outage was first reported, a TID line crew was requested to restore service. The attempt to get the crew on site was unsuccessful, per the District.

TID staff attempted to contact all 40 of its qualified electrical workers multiple times by way of phone, but no lineworkers responded except for a troubleshooter whose response was mandatory.

All after-hour and weekend service calls are performed on a voluntary basis, but if the system does not gather enough volunteers then the District may require lineworkers to report. However, the requirement can only be implemented if the District attempts to contact lineworkers are successful.

“TID has never experienced an entire weekend with multiple unsuccessful pleas to qualified electrical lineworkers to respond to multiple calls for assistance,” Hashimoto said.

The IBEW and TID have been engaged in contract negotiations since April 2011. The contract expired in December 2011, but IBEW laborers have since worked under the terms of that past contract.

The District attempted to piece together a crew of enough qualified and trained personnel to perform repairs, primarily from a pool of managers, but lacked the required number of qualified workers.

TID then reached out to multiple nearby utilities – all of whom employ IBEW members – in search of assistance; all attempts proved unsuccessful. Private electric contractors were then contacted, and, at 6 p.m. on Saturday, a company based in Visalia arrived to perform work.

“But a TID employee, a member of the lineworkers’ union, interfered with the job, thus causing the contract crew to leave the site due to concerns by the contract crew of a potential hostile work environment,” Hashimoto said.

The District then called Pacific Gas & Electric late on Saturday, who agreed to have a crew onsite Sunday morning. That crew arrived at 8:49 a.m., restoring power to some customers by 11:07 a.m. with work ultimately finished at 5:41 p.m.

 

Customers accommodated, outage plans altered

In response to the outage, the District offered a cooling center at its office, hotel accommodations, and provided continual information to affected customers about the state of the outage.

According to TID spokesperson Herb Smart, TID furnished rooms for seven affected customers on Saturday night. Additionally, the district is issuing checks to eight customers for losses due to the power outage; those losses totaled $4,389.15. Claims are still being submitted, however, and the district expects the total to rise.

The District has already begun work to update its outage contingency plans, Smart said, to ensure the situation does not occur again.

“Our power restoration contingency plan did nothing to restore customers’ power throughout the weekend,” Hashimoto said. “From the second we had the private utility crews working to restore power, we started work on addressing our contingency plans. These plans are currently being addressed, and they will continually be reassessed in the future to ensure TID customers never experience a period like this again.”

Several elements have been added to the outage contingency plan, Smart said, though the District is not revealing the details of those changes.

“It is in the best interest of TID customers that the District not reveals the details of its updated contingency plans,” Smart wrote in an e-mail.

Though a handful of outages have occurred since last Monday, Smart said that there have been no further issues with outage response.

TID directors are expected to conference with labor negotiators representing the lineworkers union during their Oct. 9 meeting in closed session. Smart said that negotiation was planned before the outage, and that no further details were available.

TID management reiterated the utility’s commitment to providing reliable service, and apologized for the weekend’s outages.

“Every single employee at TID performs a job that only exists because of TID customers,” Hashimoto said. “We owe it to our customers to do better than what they experienced over the weekend, and we issue our sincerest apologies.”

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