SCE Labor Practices Impact Rates & Safety, Union Says

17 May 2017

Southern California Edison’s 2018-2020 rate case has become embroiled in a labor dispute in which a major union says it’s been locked out of contracting jobs with the utility, which are on the upswing as the company focuses on improving its aging distribution system.

Enhancing the safety of its distribution system, in which equipment failures frequently cause blackouts and electrical hazards, is the utility’s chief priority in seeking a $1.3 billion revenue boost over the next three years, according to Shinjini Menon, Edison regulatory affairs analyst.

However, in a twist of irony, representatives of the International Union of Operating Engineers told California Public Utilities Commission Administrative Law Judge Stephen Roscow this week that the utility’s labor practices are raising rates and creating unsafe conditions.

The dispute was aired May 16 at a CPUC public participation hearing on the rate case before the attentive Roscow.

This year, Edison will get $5.663 billion in base revenue. Under its general rate case application, that would increase by $221 million in 2018, by $553 million in 2019, and then by another $570 million in 2020, according to Roscow. If the CPUC fully grants the utility’s request, its rate collection would cumulatively rise by 23.7 percent over the three-year period.

Much of the requested increase stems from mismanagement at the company, the Operating Engineers contend. At issue they say are inexperienced workers hired and forced to join the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 47 to do trenching, grading, paving and crane operation, tasks widely needed in upgrading Edison’s distribution system, which typically are their domain.

The Operating Engineers, who noted they are ratepayers as well as laborers, testified that Edison is paying IBEW members for operating cranes, moving earth, and other tasks for which they’re ill-prepared and paying them up to $10 more an hour than they would get for the same work after specialized training.

On top of the higher wages, the Engineers claim that it typically takes IBEW members twice as many hours to perform the tasks. Under state law, the company earns about a 10 percent return on each dollar it spends on the projects.

“That’s one of the reasons rates are so high,” said Mickey Adams, International Union of Operating Engineers Local 12 president, complaining about the lock out of his members.

The result, advocates for the union said, is not only higher power rates for Edison customers, but unsafe conditions for workers and residents around utility job sites.

Brandon Lopez, public works investigator for the Center of Contract Compliance, cited missteps by contract workers that resulted in four deaths while the company was working on electric distribution systems jobs.

In one incident Lopez cited, Edison contractor Pouk & Steinle was manipulating a power pole with a crane at night over an Upland street without flaggers, lights, and cones to warn motorists. A couple drove down the street and their car was impaled on the pole, which killed both of them as well as a nearby worker who was hit with the pole. The roof of the car was peeled off.

In another incident, a Pouk and Steinle worker was killed when an improperly shored trench collapsed. The man was laying cable underground in the trench. The California Division of Occupational Safety & Health fined the company $6,750.

While both incidents occurred some ten years ago, the Operating Engineers said there have been numerous other instances since then where poorly trained workers have caused power outages and injury.

A CPUC Safety & Enforcement Division report submitted in the utility’s general rate case noted the death of an apprentice contract worker in 2013 in an underground electrical vault in Huntington Beach. The worker inadvertently removed an energized piece of equipment and was electrocuted.

In a separate incident in which no one was injured, the Safety Division found that an explosion in an electric vault blacked out downtown Long Beach in 2015. It was caused by shoddy workmanship involving “improperly configured protective devices, equipment installed without critical components, deteriorated cables, poorly constructed and failed cable splices, and improperly racked equipment,” according to the report.

The first outage blacked out the major downtown area for five days. Botched restoration work resulted in another four-day outage that began just 10 days later, noted the report.

“We need to look at this [proposed rate increase] not as a revenue issue,” testified Larry Hopkins, an Operating Engineers union member, “but as management issue.”

Clearly moved, Roscow called the union testimony “very impressive” and pledged to delve into the issues raised. He also noted his job is to develop a decision for the commission to consider in the rate case that whittles down proposed spending to only what’s necessary, not what the company merely desires.

—William J. Kelly


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