Electric shock looming

FirstEnergy Corp.’s lockout of 142 employees, including meter readers, is now in its 13th week and, as a Mirror article on Saturday reported, there still are no signs of a breakthrough to end the contract dispute.

Regardless whether electric customers support the employees’ bargaining position or back the company’s stance, they should pay close attention to their electric bills. If they don’t, they could face “electric bill shock” when the locked-out workers return to their jobs.

That’s because meter readings for many customers haven’t been following the every-other-month schedule to which they’ve been accustomed. There are customers who haven’t had a company meter reading since October.

“Electric bill shock” could occur if company estimates of electric usage have been much lower than the amount of electricity actually used.

In a Feb. 5 Mirror article, it was reported that System Local 102, Utility Workers Union of America, which represents the locked-out workers, has accused FirstEnergy of violating Pennsylvania utility regulations by failing to read customers’ meters as frequently as required.

The union alleged in a complaint filed with the state Public Utility Commission on Feb. 4 that Penelec and West Penn Power, both FirstEnergy subsidiaries, have failed to read numerous customer meters at least once every two months, as required.

Actually, the cost tied to reading meters is built into customers’ electric bills.

According to the Feb. 5 article, the PUC can fine utilities up to $1,000 for each violation. However, Penelec customer service has told customers who have called to express concern about the lack of readings that the company is complying with regulations.

The company contends it is required to read meters just twice a year.

The PUC should clarify for customers what the regulations do in fact require.

If electric-usage estimates are too low and customers are not on a budget payment plan, those customers are destined to receive a “catch-up” bill. Customers shouldn’t have to opt for a budget plan, if that’s not their choice, because they fear a budget-busting bill stemming from the ongoing labor dispute.

A budget plan doesn’t guarantee that a customer will not receive a much higher-than-normal bill at some point. It also doesn’t guarantee that a customer will not have paid much more than was necessary during a budget year.

It’s impossible to predict actual usage.

Electric customers who want to avoid “electric bill shock” need to examine their latest bills. If they feel they’ve not been paying enough, they have the option to make a payment larger than what their bill indicates is due.

Meanwhile, customers who do not want to read their own meters shouldn’t have to do so because of this protracted labor impasse.

The needed solution is for the union and FirstEnergy to settle their dispute by opting for a middle ground with which both can live. It has long been said that the best contract is one about which neither side is completely happy.

The lockout has been going on for too long. Customers must start demanding a settlement.