Vision Lights On! Paying Our Line Workers

Over the next few weeks as part of our Vision Lights On! effort we will be interviewing community members knowledgeable about the technical side of getting electricity to your house. Today’s guest is Jim Windsor.

1C1C: Jim, tell us a little about your background:

Jim: I retired about a year ago as assistant director of utilities for Columbia.  I started my almost 36 year career educating people on energy efficiency.  Most of my career was in the rate design, forecasting and financial management side of the utility.

1C1C: You have raised questions at the City Council about how we are paying our line workers. First tell me what does a line worker do?

Jim:  Line workers are responsible for the construction and maintenance of the electric system.  Their job is a physically demanding and extremely dangerous job, where mistakes can result in serious injury or death. Their job requires skill and training.  Line workers have to complete a four year apprenticeship before becoming a line worker.  It takes several more years of experience for the line worker to fully understand the job.  That job can be anything from fixing a street light; finding and fixing a fault in an underground feeder; building a new feeder to serve additional customers; or, going out in a storm to address an outage caused by the severe conditions. There is not a “normal day”, it is determined by the requirements of the day.

In addition to the line workers, there are also line foreman and apprentices that make up a crew.  No other City employees work on the hundreds of miles of electric system for the over 50,000 electric customers served by Water & Light.

1C1C: What is the issue with pay? Why should we care about paying market rates?

Jim:  Very simply, we are losing trained personnel to other utilities. As assistant director, I signed off on employee resignations by the director was out of town.  That was where I saw the significant problem of non-competitive pay when I signed off on the resignation of three line workers in one day.  The people that left were happy working for Columbia, but when other utilities offer them $10,000 or $20,000 more per year, they must think about what is best for their families.

Many people remember the wind event that occurred in July 2014.  At that time, there were 12 line foreman, 18 line workers and 11 apprentices.  During the recent snow event, there were only 11 line foreman, 10 line workers and 8 apprentices.  You should also know that five of the line foreman can retire any time they choose.

That is a significant loss of people. And in addition to people, Columbia lost years of experience that can’t be replaced.  The knowledge and experience of line workers that would move into line foreman positions have been lost because some of the best and most experienced line workers have gone to other utilities.

1C1C: How does this affect us as utility customers?

Jim: One effect should be apparent from the difference in available people:  Longer outages when major storms occur because the people aren’t there to respond.

What isn’t as obvious:  Maintenance doesn’t get done as quickly because there aren’t enough people.  “Contract crews” are being paid over twice as much to do work that fully staffed in-house crews could do.  The knowledge and experience of line workers that would move into line foreman positions have been lost because some of the best and most experience line workers have gone to other utilities.

1C1C: Can you think of analogy for this situation to help the reader better understand why it’s important for Council to address this pay issue.

Jim: Council “waiting on a study” or “waiting for the next budget year” is like you going out one morning and discovering a large gash in the side of one front tire.  Instead of immediately fixing it, you think “I have to get my car inspected in 9 months, I’ll wait until then”; or, “I was planning on replacing all four tires next year, it will be fine until then.” You are putting yourself at an unnecessary risk. And you are inviting unnecessary and expensive costs if the risk materializes.

1C1C: What are your recommendations for proceeding?

Jim: Columbia for some reason adopted the policy  of only paying the median of the competitive market in salary.  That policy tells everyone that half of the market is willing to pay more that the City of Columbia.  I recommend getting rid of the policy of paying the median of the competitive market.  The previous personnel study showed what the competitive salary should be and that was used as the top of the line worker salary range.  The City should be paying enough to keep existing line workers; attract qualified line workers from other utilities; and bring back some of the ones that have recently left.

1C1C: Are there other things about our electric service that concern you?

Jim:  Certainly.  The pay issue is a concern for many other important positions and must be addressed throughout the utility.  As an example, an additional electric engineer was approved for the 2018 budget year, but the utility has never been able to hire someone because it won’t offer a competitive salary.

The failure of the Council to address the system overloading in south Columbia is also a huge issue. Council stopped the substation and transmission project passed by voters in 2015 but continues to approve more and more development in south Columbia.  Some members of the Council insist that that project isn’t necessary because load hasn’t grown as once projected.  That is simply not true. The forecast they reference was for the total system, not for the distribution system off each substation.  I note that, the last system peak occurred when the actual temperature reached 105 degrees and the nighttime temperature never got below 80.  Although those conditions haven’t occurred since, the potential load has increased significantly.  I was responsible for load forecasting.  The substations serving south Columbia are overloaded.  Perche Creek, which serves the south west side of Columbia, is at 150% of its loading goal during the summer peak.  More development has been approved that would attach to that substation.  This issue must be addressed, or development needs to stop, or we will live with an ever increasing risk of significant outages and the costs and disruptions of those outages that occur.

1C1C: Thank you so much for your time.