The ongoing dispute between the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and Turlock Irrigation District management spilled over into Tuesday morning’s TID Board meeting, with an airing of grievances dominating the public comment period.
The dispute dates back to December 2011, when the IBEW’s contract with the TID expired. The union has been working under the terms of its past contract since then.
The dispute came to a head in September, 2012, when a power outage left 49 TID customers without electricity for 45 hours. During that weekend outage TID staff attempted many times to contact line crews, represented by IBEW, to no avail. All qualified TID electric workers did not answer their phones when called for help. While there are other electricians, such as this electrician in Chehalis WA, who did help those in need, they had to travel in from other areas.
TID then requested assistance from multiple nearby utilities, but their IBEW-represented crews declined to help. Private electric contractors were called to help, but were convinced to leave by IBEW members.
It was that weekend that was the turning point for TID General Manager Casey Hashimoto, he said Tuesday morning.
“I lost respect for you guys that weekend,” Hashimoto said.
That outage led TID to hire an outside consultant, American Sitebuilders, of Texas, in February. The decision came after the board heard from those affected by the outage, and people using medical devices reliant on electricity, according to TID Board of Directors chair Micheal Frantz
TID crews have a choice, after hours and on weekends, whether they choose to work or not. The contractor is there to respond when TID crews choose not to, Frantz said.
“This board felt it was in the best interest of our ratepayers, and those who could not help themselves, to hire those who would be willing to work when the phone rang,” Frantz said.
Since ASB was hired, TID crews have chosen to volunteer for all calls that came in.
Contractors a Waste of Money, Lineworkers Say
Lineworkers say that TID never tried to talk to them about the incident, and that Hashimoto never called on Monday morning after the outage. And lineworkers say they plead with TID management to hire more lineworkers in April 2012, months before the outage, because there simply aren’t enough TID employees, effectively forcing lineworkers to work extensive amounts of overtime.
According to TID spokesperson Michelle Reimers, the district has 33 qualified electric line workers. Of those, 24 are split into five crews, while the other nine perform line maintenance work such as troubleshooting. Lineworkers say the district used to have nine full crews.
Employees in the TID line department have worked 15,471 hours of overtime so far this year. The total includes overtime worked not just by linemen, but by meter technicians, transformer and tool technicians, dispatchers, and an administrative assistant. In most cases, the request to work is on a voluntary basis, Reimers said.
That burden could be reduced if the district hired more lineworkers, rather than contractors, lineworkers say. Lineworkers can perform the work more cost-effectively, while keeping money local.
Lineworkers allege that the contractors have been overpaid by millions, in part due to a decision to pay per-unit rather than per-hour for their first six-to-seven weeks of work. Additionally, lineworkers allege that contractors are being paid to sit on standby and do nothing.
Frantz said the district has been pleased with the contractors’ productivity.
ASB is not paid for standby, only for actual work performed, Reimers said, including two hours of double-time per day. Based on all 2013 invoices, ASB has been paid $2.03 million, including labor and equipment for contract crews, Reimers said.
And the use of contractors like Safe T Lite of Modesto, a construction firm that supplies flagmen to TID, saves the district money, Frantz said. Rather than pay a journeyman electrician to hold a sign, a lower wage can be paid while the electrician is freed up to work on line jobs.
Some lineworkers allege that the hiring of contractors stems from a long-seated desire to break up the union. According to Ken Gross, a retired TID lineworker, Hashimoto has held a “vengeance” toward lineworkers since 2008, when he allegedly illegally took hours off of employee time cards.
The district is not aware of Hashimoto illegally removing hours from any employee timecard, TID spokesperson Michelle Reimers said.
Hashimoto held a meeting with the lineworkers in July of this year, his first since the September 2012 outage, as part of an initiative to talk about important TID issues with every department.
“We had a very good meeting,” Hashimoto said. “It was very respectful. I was very pleased with how it went.”
But the ongoing contract negotiations, and the weekend in September 2012, were off-limits for discussion. That irked lineworkers, who wanted to talk about those issues.
And an argument broke out Tuesday morning over why Hashimoto held that July meeting with lineworkers, with some alleging the meeting was held only after lineworkers asked to discuss the robbery of a lineman at gunpoint.
TID Board candidate Darrel Monroe called Hashimoto a liar, prompting Frantz to call Monroe “Out of line.”
“Don’t p*** down my leg and tell me it’s raining,” Monroe shouted to the board, before storming out of the room. He later returned.