Edison's agony: Proud linemen take a hit

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EDISON'S AGONY: Proud Linemen Take a Hit

Energy: Morale sinks as the utility's workers are forced to do the unthinkable: leave customers in the dark.

By NANCY CLEELAND, Times Staff Writer

Lineman Ernie Lopez has been rousted out of bed on countless cold, rainy nights. He's climbed 100-foot utility poles in heavy winds and grabbed live electrical lines with nothing but a pair of rubber gloves to protect him. But the hardest thing Lopez has done in 20 years at Southern California Edison is walk away from a darkened apartment building while residents pleaded for their heat.

It happened in late January. Sinking in debt, Edison had just announced drastic budget cuts, including a ban on most overtime. The new rule: If it's not a public safety problem, it has to wait until the next business day. Edison's 990 linemen, as well as the people they left shivering in the dark, howled. Within a week, the utility loosened its, overtime restriction. But Lopez had already done the unthinkable--twice--and remained shellshocked.

"You get the lights on at all costs. That was bred into us from the get-go," he said two weeks after leaving customers without power in Whittier and La Puente. "It's in the preamble of our [union] contract."

Months of uncertainty and bad press have chipped away at the pride linemen like Lopez once took in their jobs. Customers harangue him, complaining about rate increases and fat Edison salaries. Service levels are deteriorating. It's going to be a terrible summer. "I don't look forward to coming to work as much as I used to."

As Lopez drives toward an outage in Covina, he shouts into a cell phone over the rattling of his big white truck. "I just wish I knew what direction they're heading in," he says. "They're not telling us much. . . . We're not so sure they care about us or the customers anymore."

Edison Lacks Enough Veteran Linemen

This is bad news for anyone in Edison territory. The utility can't afford to alienate its veteran linemen because there aren't enough to go around. Journeymen are in short supply, drawing big signing bonuses and promises of generous overtime. Edison was trying to hire more than 100 when the financial crisis hit last summer. Now it faces the triple whammy of a hiring freeze, low morale and overtime pay cuts that could set off an exodus of talent.

Already, there have been some defections, including several to the flush cross-town rival, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. Lopez and other veterans remain loyal, but they're checking the Internet, just in case. "Everybody's depressed, bummed out," he says.

Linemen like to see themselves as roughneck heroes, riding into town to turn on the lights, to help the kitty out of the tree. Many are loners, outsiders, proud of their cowboy culture. They don't tend to move up to office jobs. They prefer to be out in the field. They are well paid, but what many love even more are the small signs of gratitude, the cup of coffee from a customer, the sound of applause when the lights go back on.

"We don't do it for the money. We do it for the glory," says Lopez, almost serious. Along with weathered faces and fallen arches from standing astride poles, most linemen have developed a rigid sense of civic duty. It is what makes them leave a warm bed and barge into a downpour at 3 a.m. They've missed birthdays, anniversaries, Christmas with the kids for their jobs.

Every one of them has stories, of working through hurricanes, ice storms and earthquakes. Some have been close to death. Some have watched other linemen die. "Our whole careers have been designed to provide people with power, not cut it off," says Pat Lavin, a veteran Edison lineman, now business agent for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 47. "I think our members would probably offer to work for free if they thought it would help. They like working for Edison. It's a pride thing."

Team Spirit Takes a Hit

You see this ethos in Kansas City, home of the International Lineman's Rodeo. Every September, hundreds of utility field-worker teams pour in from as far as Jamaica and England to test their skills and stamina against other linemen. They scramble up wooden poles in seconds, replace transformers and rescue "hurt man" dummies from the wires. In one event that tests focus as well as strength and dexterity, a lineman climbs a 45-foot pole holding the handle of a bucket in his teeth. In the bucket is an egg. At the top, the lineman ties the bucket to a wire, puts the egg in his mouth and climbs back down, taking care not to bite.

Last year, Edison's senior team--45 years and older--placed fourth out of 213. It was a huge coup and a career highlight for team member Joe Baker, a crew foreman and 25-year Edison veteran working out of the Barstow office. His parents came down from Iowa to watch. His wife and son--an Edison apprentice--were cheering from the bleachers. Baker had been training for months, and was in top form. "If you look at the scores," he notes, "you'll see that we were awfully close to first."

He might have made it to the top this year, but Edison won't be sending linemen to Kansas City in September. The rodeo team is one more casualty of the California crisis. Seven months after his big win, Baker watches as pieces of Barstow go dark. Planned blackouts sweep across the southern part of the state for the first time since World War II. Traffic lights blink off; drivers skid into intersections. Manufacturing lines stop cold. Root canals go unfinished. Customers call, confused and angry. They see the men in the white trucks and wonder, are they pulling the switch?

"Today I went into a grocery store. I had on an Edison hat," Baker said in early April. "The store manager, who's a friend of mine, says, 'Is it safe to wear that around here?' He wasn't joking. These days, people look at you funny, like it's all your fault."

Union Opposed Deregulation Plan

For decades, Edison's linemen enjoyed a strong safety record, top-of-the-line equipment and lifetime job security. Then came deregulation--a concept that the linemen's union opposed long before the 1996 state law was adopted, convinced it would destabilize their lives.

They were downsized. Their jobs were contracted out or given to temporary workers. They felt exposed and vulnerable. As early as 1998, an Edison veteran warned on a linemen's Web site: "All you guys, look out when deregulation comes your way. . . . SCE is still good, but not like the old days."

Among the 2,000 jobs Edison cut in January were hundreds of contracted linemen working on large construction projects. Veteran linemen absorbed huge losses in their half-million-dollar retirement accounts based on Edison stock. The utility was on the TV news every night. Linemen beganspending more time with customers, explaining, defending. They blamed the state regulators who set up the dysfunctional market and the energy suppliers who took advantage and reaped huge profits, but they also wondered: Why isn't the company doing more to get the facts out? Why isn't it being more aggressive?

In February, the union launched its own campaign, organizing a protest march at a Huntington Beach generating plant owned by AES, a giant Texas-based energy wholesaler. The message was that Edison was the victim of gouging by the generators. But what motorists saw as they drove by were angry picketers at a power plant, wearing Edison hats and jackets. Victim and villain were confused. The problem was too complex to fit on a placard. No more protests are planned.

Soon after Edison's belt-tightening, the electrical workers union filed objections with the state Public Utilities Commission, arguing that the layoffs and overtime restrictions would seriously reduce the level of service in Edison territory--a violation of PUC rules.

Two months later, the PUC agreed and ordered Edison to restore jobs and hours that could affect service. By then, some linemen argued, it was too late. "The customers will remember we weren't there for them," says Lopez, a longtime union activist and an officer of Local 47.Even after the PUC ruling, overtime restrictions for routine work continue to cut linemen's pay by at least 20%, far more in some cases. It's a traumatic loss for those who have grown accustomed to fat checks, and to nearly doubling their base pay of about $65,000.

"For someone with no college degree, earning six figures is not bad," says Russ Neal, a supervisor in the Santa Ana distribution center. "But keep in mind, this job is hard on personal lives. A lot of these guys are paying ex-wives, child support. They're not all choosing between a boat and a camper."

For some, the change has been a partial blessing. Elite "troublemen" like Lopez, who are the first on the scene of an outage, get to sleep through the night, spend more time with their children and read them bedtime stories. "Having Dad home has been wonderful," says Peggy Lopez, Ernie's wife of 20 years. "We have a son, and there's been a lot of bonding lately."

But they all miss what the linemen call blood money. The Lopez family is scaling back on weekend trips and dinners out. Peggy wonders whether she'll need to go back to work after staying home for 11 years with her two children. Nine-year-old Albert is in tears after a day of teasing at school: Your dad's going to lose his job, the kids taunt. "We hadn't shared with the children how serious it was," says Peggy. "Afterward, he and Ernie had that talk. Now we just pray that things get worked out."

Job-wise, Edison's linemen are probably safe, no matter what happens. After all, someone has to keep the power going, even through bankruptcy or state ownership. Still, it's unsettling. Linemen who were once disciplined for accidentally tripping brief outages are now ordered to cut off customers for an hour at a stretch. They're nervous and distracted. They want this crisis to end, but see no end in sight. Supervisors worry about their linemen's ability to concentrate, to stay focused. After all, in this job, a moment's carelessness can be deadly.

"It's important that we talk to them more and let them vent a little," says Bob Woods, who manages Edison's Santa Ana operating center. "When you read that your company is on the verge of bankruptcy, it's frightening. We don't want them thinking about that out in the field." Into Woods' office walks Paul Miller, a clean-cut 34-year-old troubleman, earnest, eager. He's been with the company 15 years. His job is to make the scene safe, restore as much power as possible, then call in the regular field crews for heavy-duty work.

He's out a lot on weekend nights, when drunk drivers tend to knock down poles. He's busy when the weather is lousy. He missed Christmas with his wife and toddler son last year when winds blew lines down all over north Orange County. Woods called him in for a 12-hour day, along with the station's 11 other troublemen. "I didn't hear one complaint," Woods says.

Miller is so proud of his job that he had his name embroidered on his khaki Edison uniform, along with that odd title, Troubleman. He hopes to retire from Edison someday. He hasn't had to walk away from a job, not yet. But it bothered him when he was sent to a Santa Ana apartment building that had been without power all night.

"They were pretty unhappy. Nobody's used to that kind of service. We've always been right there. . . . I can't stand it, actually, leaving people off."

Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times

-- Swissrose (cellier3@mindspring.com), May 07, 2001

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