Penelec locks out employees

Today’s possible wintry weather could test Penelec’s ability to respond to outages after locking out members of the Utility Workers Union of America Local 180 Monday morning.

FirstEnergy Corp., Penelec’s parent company, kept about 140 line, substation, clerk and meter services employees in the Altoona, Huntingdon, Lewistown and Shippensburg areas from reporting to work Monday after the union rejected the company’s “last, best and final” contract offer on Sunday.

UWUA President Bob Whalen criticized the lockout, saying it’s not good for customers.

“I think they are putting customers in harm’s way from a safety and reliability standpoint. We were willing to keep working under terms of our old contract [which expired Aug. 31],” Whalen said. “This should send a message to the state Legislature as a good reason why companies based out of state should not own and operate utility companies in Pennsylvania. They don’t care about the customers in Pennsylvania.”

FirstEnergy disputes the union’s contention that it will not be able to handle a storm or major outages.

As part of FirstEnergy’s plan to ensure necessary Penelec work continues, employees from other areas of the company who have held line jobs previously or those who have received training will fill positions.

“We now have more than 100 employees, management and supervisory employees to execute the roles the 140 members have filled. We have another 20 coming in from a FirstEnergy sister company,” said Scott Surgeoner, FirstEnergy spokesman. “We also have made arrangements to have 50 to 75 personnel coming in based on the weather forecast for [today] and Wednesday. We also have a line contractor we can call at any time.”

On Monday afternoon, the National Weather Service issued a winter weather warning for Cambria County and winter weather advisory for Blair and Huntingdon counties, predicting a mix of snow and freezing rain.

“Providing safe and reliable service is a top priority at Penelec as we focus on minimizing any inconvenience our customers might experience as a result of this action [lockout],” said Dave Karafa, president of Pennsylvania Operations for FirstEnergy.

Last Wednesday, FirstEnergy announced that it would lock out members of the UWUA Monday morning unless they accepted the company’s contract offer by Sunday evening.

“We all showed up for work and were told we were trespassing and to get off the property,” Whalen said.

“This lockout is completely unwarranted,” Whalen said. “The company chose the start of the holidays to throw dedicated workers off their jobs in order to intimidate both Penelec workers and 1,000 other FirstEnergy employees into accepting management’s outrageous concession demands. The lockout just takes FirstEnergy’s contemptible bargaining tactics to another level.”

The last best final offer contained a wage increase of 8 percent over the three-year life of the contract, increases in shift premiums and meal allowances and additional operational improvements such as a new job classification intended to increase customer service and efficiency, the company said.

The union claimed the company is attempting to “take away benefits,” mainly retiree health care by the end of 2014 and is trying to move away from the current defined benefit pension plan to a “cash balance” defined contribution plan that would replace company liability.

Despite the disagreement, both sides said they are willing to talk.

“We remain available and willing to meet to work with the union to come up with a contract fair to the union employees and our customers. We made our last best offer. If they ratify, that gets them back to work,” Surgeoner said. “We have conveyed to their leadership. We are available to meet anytime to get to a fair agreement.”

“We hope the company will get back to the bargaining table so we can resolve this dispute. That is what our goal is. They locked us out. We are willing to meet any time. Just let us know,” Whalen said.

Penelec serves approximately 590,000 customers in 31 Pennsylvania counties.

Mirror Staff Writer Walt Frank is at 946-7467.