New Haven Register (Sunday) (New Haven, CT)
While earnings rose, workforce reduced
State’s utilities have been steadily cutting workers even after Irene, Sandy criticism
The state’s electric companies — despite widespread criticism and investigations over slow power restoration a decade ago — have been steadily reducing their workforce while earnings rose.
The Connecticut Light and Power Company, an Eversource subsidiary, shed 27 percent of its workers since 2011, a Hearst Connecticut Media Group review of Securities and Exchange Commission filings shows.
Avangrid, which owns United Illuminating and seven other utilities, has reduced its overall workforce by three percent since 2015, SEC filings show. Those filings do not provide the number of UI workers.
A study earlier this year by the state Public Utilities Regulatory Authority
showed CL&P and United Illuminating both reduced a key component of their workforce — workers who restore power during an outage.
The staffing reductions follow twin 2011 storms that left more than 1.2 million residents collectively without power for weeks, prompting a $4.4 million fine against CL&P and leading to $275 million in ratepayer spending to “harden” the electric system.
The report shows that in 2016 CL&P employed 529 line workers and craft workers, down from 674 in 2011 — a 21 percent decrease. UI employed 233 line workers in 2011 compared to 221 in 2017, or five percent fewer.
Tropical Storm Isaias, which left some 800,000 customers without power when it tore through the state on Aug. 4, is drawing comparisons to 2011 and prompting questions about why it still takes more than a week to restore power lost during a storm everyone knew was coming.
“Consumers are justifiably outraged by the unacceptable response to this storm,” said Attorney General William Tong as he called for sweeping investigations and penalties.
Other documents show both utilities have been earning more than ever.
CL&P over the last five years posted a steady rise in net income, including $410 million in 2019, a $111 million increase from 2015. Parent company Eversource’s finances also improved; the company reported nearly $1.78 billion in income in 2015 and $1.83 billion in 2019.
Avangrid’s financial reporting followed a similar trend, showing the company in 2019 earned $700 million in income, a $179 million increase from 2015. The company did not post numbers for UI.
State Rep. Bill Buckbee, R-New Milford and a member of the energy committee, was surprised at the workforce reductions.
“The number of linemen they are required to keep has to be revisited,” Buckbee said. “We had people with lines across their road seven and eight days [after Isaias.] People were trapped in their homes.”
A spokesperson for Eversource declined comment on staffing levels, saying answers will be supplied during upcoming legislative hearings and an expected state regulatory review of the storm response.
Sarah Warren, a spokesperson for Avangrid, which owns UI, said reductions shown by the SEC reports reflect a reclassification of employees after Avangrid purchased UI in 2015, not an actual reduction in workers.
“When that merger happened, several roles were recategorized as to employed by Avangrid and UI,” Warren said. “But they remain employed by the company.”
Staff cost money
The PURA study on utility staffing concluded that mandating minimum employment levels would cost ratepayers millions in higher rates.
“Since there would be significant cost involved with these types of staffing changes, any minimum requirements would require approval in a rate proceeding,” PURA noted, referring to raising electric rates.
During testimony before the energy committee last year, Charles Eves, an Avangrid vice president, told lawmakers minimum staffing levels would cost money. “Requiring PURA to set minimum staffing levels may lead to unintended consequences, such as … a level of staffing that is not commensurate with the staffing required to maintain the electric distribution system, resulting in unnecessary costs to be borne by customers,” Eves said.
Eversource serves more than 1.3 million customers statewide while UI serves nearly 340,000 customers roughly located between Fairfield and North Branford.
Senate Minority Leader
Len Fasano, R-North Haven, was cautious about establishing staffing levels for electric companies.
“I don’t know what that means,” Fasano said. “We are going to carry payroll staffing for a storm that happens four times a year?”
Still, he was concerned about reduced staff, especially line workers.
“I didn’t know about staff being down and that’s concerning,” Fasano noted. “You are decreasing staff at that level and increasing pay at the management level. The arrogance of Eversource is ‘we don’t have to pay attention’ to us.”
Prior to Tropical Storm Isaias, Eversource notified the state it was preparing for a level 4 storm that could cause between 125,000 and 380,000 outages while UI prepared for a level 3 storm, which projected nearly twice as many outages statewide.
The state has five storm event levels, with a level 1 storm being the worst and a level five storm the least damaging.
State officials said the Aug. 5 tropical storm was at the high end of the level 3 category.
While Eversource missed the mark on estimating the storm, the company was on target in its recovery, said Craig Hallstrom, president for regional electric operations.
“Our employees and out-of-state crews are doing a tremendous job repairing damage and restoring power after this destructive storm,” Hallstrom said last week.
The company pointed out that while Isaias caused 25 percent more damage than Superstorm Sandy and Tropical Storm Irene, power was restored in 33 percent less time.
Several calls to the union representing state utility workers were not returned.
John Fernandes, a retired CL&P lineman and union business manager, said the combination of staff reductions, more reliance on outside crews and changes in how repair crews are deployed has slowed restoration.
“They changed the way they operate; went to response specialists,” said Fernandes, who retired in 2017 but remains in contact with crews.
“They closed work centers so they had a remote workforce,” Fernandes explained.
Fernandes said he talked to crews last week and a common complaint was how much time was being wasted driving across the state.
“Back in the day, your group had that station and you fixed everything,” Fernandes said.
“Now they are running around and shuffling people to get towns under 10 percent [without power] and then leaving people in the dark and going to the next town,” he explained. “It’s a bit of a sleight of hand.”
State Rep. Joe Gresko, D-Stratford and a member of the energy committee, said a new round of hearings are likely to begin at the end of August over utility performance.
“I want to hear what their answers are when asked — ‘You got millions in ratepayer money to change the system and nothing changed,’” said Gresko, who lost power for three days.
Gresko and other lawmakers said the utilities should not have reduced staff while earning record income levels.
“I understand the financial logic — why would I want to keep someone on payroll when I can farm out the work to contractors?” Gresko said. “How’s that working? It hasn’t.”
Mitch Gross, an Eversource spokesman, declined to answer questions.
“We will certainly be answering these and other questions as part of the PURA review process, but right now we remain focused on one thing — doing everything we can do to restore power to our remaining affected customers as quickly and safely as possible,” Gross said midweek as the company focused on reducing the number of remaining outages.
Tony Marone, UI’s CEO, said the company did the best it could to restore power.
“As with every storm, we planned in advance and marshaled significant restoration resources ahead of its arrival,” Marone said in a statement. “As part of this plan, approximately 25 percent of our resources were dedicated to our municipalities to clear roads and remove damaged infrastructure to establish site safety,” Marone said. “This partnership was essential to the recovery of our communities.”
Some lawmakers are suggesting new laws to give PURA more authority to regulate electric companies, set staffing levels and issue penalties for poor performance, including returning money to ratepayers.
Lamont last week proposed a performance based regulatory system to force Eversource and UI to improve reliability and harden systems.
State Sen. Matt Lesser, D-Middletown and vice chairman of the energy committee, faulted Eversource for reducing staff and equipment.
“In my district, we used to have local maintenance facilities,” Lesser said. “They have shuttered those. There are now three local maintenance facilities for the state. They have dramatically reduced their footprint on the ground.”
Lesser added, “I told them at the time it would reduce reliability and the mayor said the same thing. Yet they did it. It’s outrageous and it’s not working.”
Fasano said he favored Lamont’s performancebased approach. “I think they should pay for food damages, like in New York, and use it as a penalty mechanism,” he said.
Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, said the solution may involve a regional approach to regulating electric companies.
“Eversource is now a multi-state public company and I think it makes it more difficult for Connecticut to regulate them than it did when it was just Connecticut Light and Power,” Duff said.