Hurricane Sandy Service Restoration Effort Shows Need for Utility Reform Is Greater Than Ever

"Deteriorating physical utility infrastructure is not a New York problem—it is national concern. The failure to address it in a timely and effective manner is endangering our members’ ability to provide essential utility services safely and reliably."

In the weeks and months following Hurricane Sandy, our members in the Northeast were engaged, 24/7, in the restoration of service to the millions affected by this storm. More recently, and in conjunction with the winding down of service restoration efforts, we have been conducting a performance assessment and, even more important, developing a set of recommendations for the future. The results are contained in the attached report. In sum, they highlight a situation in which utility customers are paying first-class rates, but receiving third-world services.

While the assessment focuses on Consolidated Edison of New York, the issues raised and the events described are being experienced to varying degrees in electric, gas, and water utilities across this Nation. Deteriorating physical utility infrastructure is not a New York problem—it is national concern. The failure to address it in a timely and effective manner is endangering our members’ ability to provide essential utility services safely and reliably.

But the problem runs far deeper than fixing rotting utility poles, mending frayed wires, and replacing corroded underground pipes. Over the past fifteen years, and in part as a byproduct of aggressive deregulation initiatives, utilities- whether providing electric, gas, or water services have slashed their workforces, even as workloads have increased. This has made it increasingly difficult-if not impossible-for our members to keep the physical systems they operate in acceptable working condition. These human infrastructure problems will only intensify if we fail to take sensible measures to address our country’s aging utility workforce. Industry survey data show that between 2009 and 2011, the number of line workers decreased by .5%, the number of transmission and distribution technicians decreased by 1.1 %, and the number of plant operators dropped by 5.6%. Worse, data indicate that, as a group, energy industry workers are significantly older than the national average. During the same time period, the amount of infrastructure to be maintained, and customers to be served, has increased.

In some comers of our Nation, it appears that the response to these problems has been to blame workers- whether by undertaking efforts to restrict collective bargaining rights, or to damage unions through the adoption of so-called “Right to Work” laws. These are solutions in search of a problem. The real solutions lie in implementing the recommendations set forth in our report, which promote practical ideas for how to get our Nation’s utilities to address pending and critical physical and human utility infrastructure issues:

• Establish baseline staffing levels for utility field and operations staff, and require periodic reviews by regulators of the extent to which those levels are being met;

• Require utilities to take sensible actions to address workforce “graying” concerns, thereby ensuring that there will be qualified replacements in place when our older workers reach retirement age;

• Conduct evaluations of utility maintenance practices, require that utilities set sensible maintenance budgets, and demand that utilities spend those budgets on actual maintenance work;

• Investigate the costs and benefits of “mutual aid” arrangements. Reliance upon these costly arrangements can be minimized by having in-place day-to-day field staff that is properly trained and sufficient in size to perform ongoing maintenance (including preemptive maintenance) in an efficient manner.

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, ravaged communities are examining how best to rebuild utility infrastructure. This is a discussion that we think needs to occur in every state, whether or not facing an impending (or present) crisis. We urge that government focus not simply on rebuilding what was destroyed, but on committing to the development of more durable physical and human utility infrastructure. That means taking a hard look at the issues raised in this report.

We look forward to being part of the efforts in New York and across the Nation to improve the quality and reliability of vital electric, gas, and water utility services.

Sincerely,

D. Michael Langford
UWUA National President

Click Here to Download the UWUA’s Position Statement on Hurricane Sandy Service Restoration Efforts

Coverage of the statement in New York can be found at the following link: http://www.timesunion.com/business/article/Utility-union-Sandy-costly-4273212.php