Pepco workers express pride, vent frustrations
By Ian Shapira,
Jacob DuBose sized up the tilted utility pole, leaning precariously since the June 29 derecho, and concluded that it would hold. But as a senior Pepco lineman, he realized that he might have to make a judgment call that took public relations into account.
“You know,” said Elizabeth Leary, an interior designer who had summoned him last week to the Chevy Chase Hills neighborhood, “Pepco was really slow to respond during the storm.”
“Well,” DuBose said, standing on her front lawn, “I guess the system got so inundated with calls, I guess, it collapsed.”
He and his cohorts work for one of the region’s most vilified companies and perform tasks that are stressful, dangerous and often under-appreciated by the public. Pepco employees on the front lines of the blackout battles have largely kept quiet in the aftermath of the powerful storm that knocked out power to more than 483,600 Pepco customers in Maryland and the District, fearful to speak without permission.
But DuBose and other company linemen and employees, interviewed at length, offered nuanced views about their performance, expressing pride in how hard they worked for days after the storm and more than a little frustration at the public’s anger and often unrealistic expectations.
Their greatest frustrations, however, they reserved for their employer, saying that Pepco needs to hire and train more senior linemen so that the company does not have to wait for days after a storm for less-capable out-of-state contractors to arrive.
“There’s definitely a lack of manpower, of internal employees,” said James Tarantella, another senior Pepco lineman who worked after the derecho. “We have a lot of contractors who are unfortunately not as good as Pepco workers. The contractors can’t switch on mainline feeders. A lot of the problems with restoration are due to cutbacks years ago, and now it’s come back to haunt us.”
Pepco has vigorously defended its efforts at restoring power after the storm, reporting to Maryland regulators last month that it had moved more quickly than other utilities and ultimately called in an additional 1,200 utility workers from Florida, Georgia and elsewhere.
The average outage time for Pepco customers, the company told the Maryland Public Service Commission, was 26 hours, considerably less than the average 37.5-hour outage endured by customers of Baltimore Gas and Electric.
But George Nelson, the vice president of operations and engineering of Pepco Holdings, agreed that the company needs to hire more linemen. Pepco had 162 staff linemen in 1997, the company said, and now employs 147, although the company today has 400 local contractors, compared with just 155 local contractors in 1997.
The company said it will hire 35 more linemen and other workers by 2013.
Nelson and many other Pepco supervisors said that, even in a battered economy, it’s hard to find experienced senior linemen. Pepco can’t easily poach from rival utilities because, in their profession, linemen typically begin at an early age, work in the area they grew up in and are too invested in that utility’s benefits programs. Pepco can hire contract linemen as staff employees, but they generally lack expertise and need several years of training.
Union: Hire more linemen
Pepco employees fret over more than short staffing. Several brought up their union’s protracted contract negotiations.
Jim Griffin, president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1900, said the union is fighting several Pepco proposals in contract talks: the elimination of seniority as the dominant factor in promotions; an increase in employees’ out-of-pocket medical expenses; and the removal of the union’s ability to negotiate medical benefits.
Griffin said the company needs to spend less on commercials and to hire more Pepco-trained and -paid linemen.
“Right now, we have too many contractors, and we end up having to go behind them to fix their mistakes,” he said. “When you have crews coming from Quebec or Oklahoma, they take at least three days to travel and set up here, and if we had more qualified linemen on staff, we could get started after big storms sooner.”
Griffin said Pepco union members reported to him that the company also could have moved much faster if it had been better organized during the storm.
“There were people with a lot of experience who weren’t called at all, and there were whole groups of people who answer customer calls who were told not to work on July Fourth,” Griffin said. “There was one case where a very experienced employee spent a 16-hour shift and was given nothing to do. People who volunteered were told, ‘We don't need you.’ ”
One longtime Pepco lineman, who did not want to be named for fear of losing his job, said that long hours and benefit cuts are driving away skilled employees. “People are getting out,” he said. “The job is getting tougher, there are more requirements on the job. The benefits are being reduced. I need to get out now while I still have retirement. People are being forced to work so many hours, so they are out on stress leave. Their doctors tell them to take off, and they haven’t been working for weeks.”
The lineman also raised the issue of executive compensation. He and several colleagues said it is hard to sympathize with their corporate bosses when they hear that Pepco Holdings chief executive Joseph M. Rigby’s total compensation — including salary, stock options and pension benefits — doubled from about $3.5 million in 2010 to about $7.1 million in 2011. Rigby’s compensation, they said, only makes it harder for the company to gain state regulators’ or the public’s sympathy when it wants rate increases or patience during week-long outages.
“I will say this about our CEO: He is trying to do something about the reliability,” the longtime Pepco lineman said. “But is what he does in one day 300 times more important than what I do? He’s just one guy. It bothers employees, particularly when Pepco wants to cut benefits, and we’re putting our lives on the line.”
Myra Oppel, a Pepco Holdings spokeswoman, said in an e-mail that Rigby oversees “one of the largest energy delivery companies in the mid-Atlantic region, serving about two million customers in Delaware, the District of Columbia, Maryland and New Jersey.” Rigby’s pay is set by an “independent committee” of the company’s Board of Directors with input from an outside consultant, she added.
Nelson, the vice president of operations and engineering, described Pepco’s workforce as motivated by the challenge of the recent storm and as having high morale.
“We have very dedicated employees who are committed to providing safe and reliable service to our customers, as evidenced by their hard work and long hours, especially during the derecho restoration,” he said. “We saw the opposite of dispirited performance from employees who called in before we could call them, who gave up their vacations to come in and who worked around the clock to help restore service to our customers. We are proud of our employees and their response.”
Nelson said he thought the company was skillful in the way it marshaled employees during the storm.
“This was all hands on deck, and we called in all of our field craft employees. We certainly wouldn’t skip over the senior workers. They’d be the first we reached out to. We strive to be as efficient as we can during storm restoration. After each storm, we talk to all employees to see if we can find ways to improve our response. If employees have ideas on how we can do something better, we encourage them to share those.”
Management and workers tend to unite in response to what they see as the public’s unrealistic expectations about what it takes to restore power, especially after a storm of the derecho’s severity. Washingtonians are clueless, they said, about the 16-hour days, the perilous working conditions, the nights in motels away from families, and the customers who curse them or block them from leaving neighborhoods until the power comes back on.
Residents can be ornery when linemen arrive in a neighborhood to make repairs. A lineman said that days after the derecho, a resident blamed him for his loss of Internet service and hurled expletives at him. Dane Merkel, a Pepco general supervisor, said many of his employees love their jobs but the incessant public vitriol sinks their morale.
“The media and local politicians have beat up on Pepco, the workers get discouraged. They hadn’t seen their families during the storm restoration. It gets old,” he said.
DuBose, the senior lineman working in Chevy Chase Hills last week, remembered driving three days to Hurricane Katrina, where he was part of an out-of-state emergency crew. “There were signs there saying, ‘God Bless linemen,’ ” he recalled. “People waved at us. But not here.”
The tilted utility pole outside Elizabeth Leary’s house didn’t need to be straightened, he realized, because it was deep in the ground and wouldn’t fall.
“The pole’s fine, but I’ll get it fixed. Otherwise, she’ll call in a bunch of times,” he said, taking a break by his truck outside her home.
Standing at her front door, Leary said it was maddening that Pepco had not bothered to fix the pole but had managed to find time that morning to install a brand-new meter on her house.
“They’re fixing the meter to get their money,” she said.
His shift over, DuBose headed back to Pepco’s Rockville office. About 2:45 p.m., he pulled into the parking lot. A big banner hung from the building, its full meaning subject to interpretation by linemen, managers and customers. “We are,” it said, “working on modernizing our systems for reliability.”
Mary Pat Flaherty contributed to this report.