Local PSE crews dwindle
July 3, 2008 · Updated 12:33 PM
"As union leaders and Puget Sound Energy executives wrangle over the future of the company's work force, longtime Whidbey employees of the company are wondering if that future includes them.The company's telling us we're going to be transitioned, said Gunnar Loveng, a 12-year PSE journeyman lineman based out of the company's Oak Harbor service center. The way I look at it is, we're all going to be laid off by the end of the year. We'll watch these trucks disappear and this headquarters close.But rumors of impending layoffs, and of PSE pulling up stakes on Whidbey Island are premature, said spokeswoman Dorothy Bracken. There are no present plans to close the Oak Harbor service center, she added.The concerns of Loveng and other local PSE employees stem from announcements the company started making last February regarding its intent to start using outside contractors to perform most of its construction, maintenance and emergency repair work.Puget Sound Energy is the largest investor-owned utility in the state and currently employs more than 3,000 workers.Back then, company spokesmen characterized the plan as a transition to subcontractors.Three months later, union officials say, roughly half of PSE's employees who belong to Local Union 77, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, are still waiting for the transition to play out, and for the new contractors to be selected. We had a meeting with them (PSE) on Wednesday and they narrowed their list down, but they still haven't got any (contractors), said Patty Warren, one of two PSE business reps with Local 77. But they made it real clear they wanted to get rid of the employment relationship with employees they're going to 'transition' or lay off.Warren said the transition could affect nearly half PSE's work force. Bracken however, said the company had no idea how many of its workers would be transitioned, but PSE's objective for them was to secure long-term job opportunities with the selected firms.As of Friday, Bracken added, the list of contracting firms to be selected had been narrowed down from 11 to six.Driving the changes within the Puget Sound Energy, Bracken said, Is the growing competitive services offered by firms that specialize in construction services for utilities. The consolidation of of utility construction firms has been phenomenal, she said.Local 77's Warren was more succinct. They say they want to provide the best possible service at the lowest possible price, Warren said. Bottom line, they want to save money. They want to provide more to the shareholders and have the stock improve.And the down side to hiring outside contractors, Warren added, is that improving the bottom line could cause problems for a small isolated community like Whidbey Island, where frequent winds cause frequent power outages.The workers that you have there now, that are available full-time to turn you're power back on might not be available, Warren said of the transition plan. Construction workers go where the money is. There may be there's a big storm in Spokane and they'll be there when another storm hits Whidbey.Loveng agrees, adding that local PSE employees are more invested in Whidbey.We take a sense of responsibility for Whidbey. When the lights go out here, my lights go out, Loveng said. But if it's a contractor in Enumclaw and the lights go out on Whidbey, he's only coming here for the money.Gunner Loveng and his co-workers can tell what the weather will do by looking at the sun. A handy trait when you're responsible for keeping the power on for Whidbey Island.You see that ring around the sun today? the journeyman lineman and 12-year veteran Puget Sound Energy employee asked Thursday. That means rain and wind's coming tomorrow. When we look up in May and see that, it's no big deal. But when when I see that ring in November, I know it's time to batten down the hatches and tell my wife I'll be back in three days.It rained Friday. Time, experience and familiarity with Whidbey weather have given Loveng and his 17 Whidbey PSE co-workers that kind of local knowledge, he said.Thing is, these days Loveng's wondering if their time on Whidbey is growing short.Puget Sound Energy is in the process of developing a plan to transition, or farm out service, maintenance and emergency response work to outside contractors. And even though PSE spokespeople say the company intentions are to secure jobs for its current workers with the new contractors, Loveng isn't so sure.He thinks buzz words like 'transitioned' really mean Oak Harbor's service center will be closed down and a mainland contractor will get the contract to service Whidbey's electrical needs.They'll close this down and move us out and let people, wherever they are , maintain things, he said. Then Whidbey won't have anyone who lives here that knows the island, working here and able to be a first response.In addition, Loveng fears that if the service center and local lineman, field aids and equipment operators move off island, quick response to major, weather-related power outages could become a thing of the past.We're here in Oak Harbor and that means Oak Harbor goes on first if there's a major power outage, Loveng said. but if the contractor is in Anacortes, that means Anacortes goes on first.Loveng said it takes him about three minutes to get to work now and that the most distant PSE employee lives in Coupeville.What people don't realize is that we're here. People don't notice us here, he said. But they'll notice when we're gone.Loveng has been working as a lineman for 20 years, a dozen with Puget Sound Energy in Oak Harbor. The company has been in Oak Harbor for 75 years.This is the best company I've ever worked for, he said. The thing is, when you work for the best, it brings everyone up. And when you run as smooth as these guys do, it makes you proud. But it's all gonna change.Despite company assurances that PSE workers will remain in their fields, Loveng believes that really means far afield. That Whidbey employees will end up driving off island to another company's service center, then maybe drive back to the Whidbey in the event they're needed. The company has a grand master plan and I'm sure that in time it will work, Loveng said. And the big line contractors do a good job. The rest of us will just disperse into society. Me? I'm gonna get on with life and the customers will just have to be patient. "