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Published Thursday, Feb. 15, 2001, in the San Jose Mercury News CALIFORNIA'S ENERGY CRISIS
PG&E cuts back on overtime
UNION SAYS DECISION WILL NOT HELP COMPANY'S DEBT
In light of its financial crisis, Pacific Gas & Electric Co. drastically reduces overtime work that isn't prompted by emergencies.
Power generators are demanding reimbursement for unpaid bills.
BY ANN MARIMOW Mercury News
Don't expect PG&E crews to race out to fix that blown transformer up the block. Unless it's an emergency, you'll likely be left in the dark until morning.
Seven Redwood City homeowners found that out Wednesday when a crew didn't show up for nine hours to fix a transformer. In San Mateo earlier this week, three blocks of residents were in the dark for 13 hours when lightning struck a transformer.
All those service-cutbacks Pacific Gas & Electric Co. warned about last month have arrived.
If it's not a gas leak, a live wire, or a natural disaster like an earthquake or fire, the company says you may have to wait. What amounts to an emergency? PG&E sends a worker to each outage to decide whether it's worth sending a crew on overtime.
The company's financial crisis has prompted it to cut back on overtime and lay off 1,000 of its 20,000 workers over the next six months.
Now, some of its 4.5 million customers are starting to feel it.
``They said they'd send someone right away,'' said Carrie Hussussian, who waited eight hours Wednesday for a PG&E crew to restore power to her Emerald Lake Hills neighborhood in Redwood City. At midnight, she needed to wake her 4-month-old daughter to wrap her in flannel pajamas and three blankets. At dawn, her husband had to drive down the hill to get hot water for the baby's formula.
``We were so worried about her,'' Carrie Hussussian said.
A dark and cold home
For San Mateo resident Juanita Riviera, PG&E's new policy meant more than inconvenience Monday night when the electricity went out.
Shivering with the flu in front of the television, Riviera's home got dark and cold around 8:40 p.m., after a transformer exploded on State Street. Her power wasn't restored until just before 10 a.m. Tuesday.
Considering that her bill has jumped from $80 to $183 per month from this time a year ago, the level of service should have at least stayed the same, she said. Now, the company's own linemen say they're embarrassed about the new money-saving measures, which have also left them with far less overtime pay.
``We have an obligation to supply people with power,'' said 21-year lineman Bob Gerstle of Redwood City. ``When we stop doing that then we're no different than an electrical contractor who tells you, `I'll be out there in two weeks.' ''
``It's ridiculous,'' said Gerstle's co-worker Steve Vidovich of San Ramon. ``We're a service company. They drill that into our heads.''
Linemen typically earn about $25 per hour. When they're paged to work overtime, they earn double.
The union representing Bay Area utility workers, however, says the money PG&E saves in overtime-cutbacks and layoffs is inconsequential compared to the company's enormous debt.
``It makes no sense to compound the power shortages that the state is experiencing with cutbacks in other forms of service,'' said Eric Wolfe, communications director for the electrical worker's union, based in Walnut Creek.
When PG&E officials were asked Wednesday about the change in overtime policy and its effect on service, they offered an evolving response.
Initially, spokesman Scott Blakey said, ``There have not been any cut backs in service.''
Later in the day, Blakey said, ``The company has come to a point where it is reluctant to do extra overtime for work that it feels on a regular day-to-day basis is not an emergency.''
Late last month, PG&E acknowledged that it would take longer to respond to outages because of current and future layoffs, and because of restrictions on overtime, according to papers filed with California Public Utilities Commission.
The report states that ``restoring service and restoring facilities to normal operation may be delayed beyond typical time frames if the restoration work could involve extensive overtime expenditures. The use of extensive overtime will be determined on a case-by-case basis by local emergency response employees.''
Mountain customers wait
By Wednesday afternoon, in the hard-hit Santa Cruz Mountains, about 1,100 customers on both sides of the mountain remained without power. Blakey said crews hoped to have power restored to most of them by 8 p.m. that day.
Overtime was cut back for crews in the Santa Cruz Mountains, but only as a safety precaution, and not because of concerns over costs, according to PG&E. Crews stopped working at 10 p.m. Tuesday, got eight hours of sleep and came back on the job early Wednesday.
``If it's only one day,'' foreman Keith Lamport said, ``then we'll do it'' -- that is, work straight through.
But Blakey, the PG&E spokesman, called the outages in the Santa Cruz Mountains a ``no-man's land'' between emergency and non-emergency status.
``If it was a full-blown emergency, with public health, welfare and safety involved, we'd be out there regardless of the cost,'' he said. ``Each case is different.''
Mercury News staff writers David L. Beck and Aaron Davis contributed to this report. Contact Ann Marimow at firstname.lastname@example.org or (650) 366-0145.
-- Martin Thompson (email@example.com), February 15, 2001