FirstEnergy Fails to Read Meters Consistently, Utility Workers Union Alleges in Complaints
An Ohio-based energy company is violating Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission regulations by failing to have workers at two of its subsidiaries read residential meters at least once every two months, the Utility Workers Union of America, System Local 102, said in separate complaints filed Feb. 4 with the commission (Utility Workers Branch 180-Sys. Local 102 v. Pa. Elec. Co., Pa. Pub. Util. Comm’n, docket number not available, 2/3/14) (Utility Workers Sys. Local 102 v. W. Penn Power Co.Pa. Pub. Util. Comm’n, docket number not available, 2/3/14
The FirstEnergy Corp. subsidiaries named in the complaints are West Penn Power in Greensburg, Pa., and Pennsylvania Electric Co. (Penelec) in Altoona, Pa. The companies provide electricity for residents in northern, south central and southwestern sections of Pennsylvania.
”At least since January 2013, and possibly for several months prior to that date,” the UWUA said in the complaints, the two subsidiaries have ”consistently and willfully failed to comply” with certain requirements imposed by the commission. As a result, the union said, ”thousands of residential customers” are being affected. Mark Durbin, a spokesman for FirstEnergy in Akron, Ohio, told Bloomberg BNA Feb. 5 that the company has not seen the complaints. He declined to comment on the union’s allegations.
Staff Shortages Alleged.
The UWUA represents 900 employees at West Penn Power and Penelec, including meter readers at both companies. The union said the two utilities did not ”hire sufficient staff to allow for timely reading of customers’ meters, but instead routinely issue consecutive estimated bills to numerous residential customers.”
”We have filed these complaints to make certain that West Penn Power and Penelec comply with all regulations designed to protect the public interest, and also to defend the interests of our members who deliver essential services to the public every day,” Robert Whalen, president of UWUA System Local 102, said Feb. 4 in a statement.
Mark Brooks, special counsel to Whalen, told Bloomberg BNA Feb. 5, the complaints the union filed with the commission are not directly related to an ongoing lockout of 142 UWUA-represented workers at Penelec. The company locked out the workers in late November after the union declined to respond to what the company described as its ”last, best and final” contract offer (233 DLR A-8, 12/3/13).
”We pride ourselves on raising issues for consumers as well as workers; this is consistent with our track record,” Brooks said. ”But we don’t want FirstEnergy to use the Penelec lockout as an excuse to not properly read customers’ meters.”
UWUA recently discovered the alleged meter violations after reviewing utility bills of Penelec and West Penn Power customers who Brooks said also mostly are UWUA members. Not all of the bills reviewed reflected alleged violations, he said.
The complaints state that the union would like the commission to order Penelec and West Penn Power ”to hire a sufficient number of meter readers and other staff to enable the companies to comply with meter reading requirements, and to assess a civil penalty for every violation over the past three years.”
A spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission confirmed the union’s contention that the commission could fine utilities up to $1,000 for each violation of its regulations, pending the outcome of an investigation.
Stalled Contract Negotiations.
UWUA has nine collective bargaining contracts with FirstEnergy in five states. A 10th UWUA local in West Virginia is negotiating its first contract with another FirstEnergy subsidiary, Brooks said.
Brooks also said in the past several years the relationship between UWUA and FirstEnergy has been ”at an all-time low.”
”Every time we come to the bargaining table the company brings a take-it-or-leave-it attitude as far as demanding major concessions,” Brooks said.
Union negotiators have refused to sign off on the company’s proposal to eliminate retiree health insurance for all members of the bargaining unit, he said. For new hires, the company has proposed abolishing its defined benefit pension plan and replacing it with a defined contribution plan.
In addition, Brooks said, ”major concessions in health benefits are being demanded for everybody.”
”And then, even more offensive, the company is demanding the right for management to unilaterally change all of our benefits during the term of any contract,” he said.
”This means management would reserve the right to impose even more concessions in any kind of benefit plan during the life of the contract, which is not much of a contract if the company can ignore it at will.”
Durbin at FirstEnergy said the company’s last, best and final contract offer contained a wage increase of 8 increases in shift premiums and new job classifications to ”increase customer service and efficiency.”
Company Says Offer Consistent With Others.
”The offer is consistent with other contracts FirstEnergy has recently negotiated,” he said. ”Local 180 members would receive the same health care as other FirstEnergy employees, or they can opt out and FirstEnergy will contribute the same amount of money toward their opt-out health care that it would have contributed had they stayed on the FirstEnergy plan.”
Ultimately, he said, the last, best and final offer includes wage increases and benefits similar to what the company’s other utility employees in bargaining units receive.
”We continue to hope UWUA Local 180 members vote and ratify the contract proposal to end the lockout,” Durbin said. ”That being said, we have implemented plans to ensure Penelec work continues.”
System Local 102 includes Branch No. 180. UWUA represents 750 workers at West Penn Power and 142 at Penelec. The workers locked out at the Penelec location include linemen, substation electricians, garage mechanics, layout technicians, and meter readers, Brooks said.
In December, FirstEnergy said it had assigned employees from other areas of the company who have held line jobs previously or who had received training to fill positions held by locked-out workers.
”We understand they are using outside contractors and supervisors,” Brooks said.
BY RHONDA SMITH
To contact the reporter on this story: Rhonda Smith in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org To contact the editor responsible for this story: Susan J. McGolrick at email@example.com Text of the Pennelec complaint is available at http:// op.bna.com/dlrcases.nsf/r?Open=rsmh-9g2qd2 and text of the West Penn complaint is available at http:// op.bna.com/dlrcases.nsf/r?Open=rsmh-9g2qdk.