Regulators review staffing levels at Connecticut utility companies

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Connecticut regulators are conducting a workforce review of Eversource Energy and United Illuminating at a time when state officials are questioning whether utility companies rely too heavily on outside contractors.

The Public Utilities Regulatory Authority is conducting an assessment and plans to release its recommended minimum staffing levels for utility companies in August, according to agency spokesman Joe Cooper.

Cooper said “Staffing levels maintained by the utilities under ‘normal’ or ‘blue sky’ conditions have been determined by the utilities and supplemented by applications which are reviewed by PURA and stakeholders. in the context of tariff case procedures”.

Eversource, which has 1.27 million customers in 149 Connecticut municipalities, has about 480 in-house power distribution line workers and 250 state-based contract line workers who “work onsite every day,” according to Tricia Modifica, company spokesperson.

UI, which serves 341,000 customers in 17 communities, has about 100 online repairers, according to Gage Frank, a company spokesperson.

“UI has approximately 92 local line-clearance contract workers who are also available for storm support and 35 out-of-state line-clearance contract workers,” Frank said.

Eversource and UI typically contract out tree trimming work and often hire third-party contractors to help out in the aftermath of major storms.

“When you start looking at what the climatologists are saying, that we’re going to have more storms and more extreme storms, I would be very careful not to downsize further,” said Joel Gordes, a West Hartford. energy industry consultant.

State Sen. Norman Needleman, D-Essex, said he’s concerned that utility companies are outsourcing too much work.

Needleman, who is also Essex’s first coach and co-chairman of the legislature’s energy and technology committee, said utility companies need to focus on keeping more of the work going. in-house repair.

“Why can’t they have more staff working full time?” said Needleman. “They just outsourced a lot of the work. We (state legislators) don’t want you to be underprepared, we don’t want you to be overprepared, but err on the side of caution.

Needleman isn’t alone in worrying about staffing levels at the state’s two largest utilities. Guilford First Selectman Matt Hoey and Ridgefield First Selectman Rudy Marconi criticized Eversource’s responses following major storms.

Eversource told local leaders in its service area that it will provide a dedicated team to each city following a major storm to de-energize distribution lines that are downed in a process called “secure “.

“Touch wood, we haven’t had any storms where they had to deliver on that promise,” Hoey said. “Our Public Works and National Roads crews cannot make the roads passable unless Eversource brings in a crew and disconnects downed power lines. emergency in the neighborhoods.

Marconi said Eversource’s promise comes with a catch: the crew can be pulled out to help solve a more critical problem elsewhere.

“When we have a storm, the last thing you want to see is your crew leaving because you never know when you’re going to pick them up,” Marconi said.

Modifica said Eversource now has a security operations team that works directly with municipalities and first responders “to prioritize public safety emergencies, clear blocked roads, and expedite the response to urgent repairs.” .

“In major storms, this new team will provide a line crew and a public safety specialist within 12 hours of the storm’s passage to each city that has experienced a secure blocked road involving power lines,” it said. she declared.

The security operations team was formed after Eversource came under fire for its response to Tropical Storm Isaias in August 2020. The storm left more than one million customers without power for an extended period in the amid the pandemic and a summer heat wave.

Steve Sullivan, the new president of power operations for Eversource in Connecticut, said company officials recognize the impact that losing power for long periods of time can have on a community.

“It’s a vital industry that impacts everyone’s life,” Sullivan said.

Modifica said that because every storm is different, “the costs of hiring out-of-state line crews have varied significantly.”

“Over the past two years, the number of storms and the imperative to secure crews well in advance of the storm’s arrival to ensure crews are on site as soon as the storm passes has increased costs,” said she declared. “Typically, the cost of hiring outside crews is 80-90% of the total storm response cost. These costs can range from a low $10-20 million for a smaller, shorter duration storm to over $200 million for a storm of the magnitude we experienced in Isaias.

According to documents filed by Eversource with PURA, the utility had 352 distribution line workers in 2015 and that number fluctuated between a low of 336 in 2016 and a high of 381 in 2018.

Sullivan said the number of line repairers has remained essentially flat over the past decade and that’s also the case elsewhere in Eversource’s service territory, which includes parts of southeastern Massachusetts and the New Hampshire.

But with some line workers leaving and others changing jobs within the company, Eversource needs to hire 40-50 line workers a year just to keep up with the current pace.

“It’s almost like we’re treading water,” Sullivan said.

To help recruit more workers, Eversource has partnered with Capital Community College for an 11-week training program that launched last year at the Hartford school.

There were 15 people in his first class, Modifica said.

“Twelve of the 15 took advantage of the interview opportunity and were hired by us,” Modifica said. “We also have similar programs at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston and Manchester Community College in New Hampshire.”

Modifica said “adding line workers requires a long-term commitment because highly skilled, skilled and experienced line workers are hard to find in the open job market.”

“It takes at least five years to train and qualify a line candidate,” she said.

Between 2017 and 2021, UI lost 16 line workers, mostly due to retirement, Frank said.

Frank said the company has “taken steps to hire new line workers to fill vacancies created as a result of attrition.” Among those steps is a line school that helps train the workers who will fill the openings, he said.

Given the amount of training companies say is involved in preparing line workers, Needleman said the key metric may not be staffing levels.

“So the real question we as legislators should be asking is how many workers are fully trained at any given time?” he said.

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