Union says B.C. Hydro limiting overtime

Members claim that the move has resulted in longer outages and higher expenses

Electrical energy generated at power facilities is transmitted at high voltages through overhead power lines Transmission lines in BCand underwater cables.

Electrical energy generated at power facilities is transmitted at high voltages through overhead power lines Transmission lines in BCand underwater cables.

People are freezing in the dark longer because of B.C. Hydro’s cap on overtime rates, says the linemen’s union.

Meanwhile, the public utility is paying contractors $10 an hour more to fix the wires and transformers that plunge people into the dark any time a storm hits and knocks out powerlines.

“I don’t see why people should be punished for answering phones to come and put the lights back on. That’s what we do, most of the time in the worst weather,” said Doug McKay, business manager for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 258.

“My guys are very choked about what’s going on.”

McKay said in order to keep down Crown Corporation salaries, reportable to the public every year, B.C. Hydro limits the number of overtime hours a year to between 500 and 700 hours.

Those hours are in addition to the 1,980 regular hours worked yearly.

To avoid exceeding overtime limits, B.C. Hydro calls on private companies and crews to make emergency repairs.

But private contractors pay their workers $46 an hour, compared to $39 an hour for B.C. Hydro linemen.

“We’re the lowest paid utility in western Canada.”

Linemen in Saskatchewan make $44 an hour and in Alberta make $49 an hour.

McKay said that private contractors had to be called in the aftermath of a recent storm in the Peace River country in northeast B.C., while B.C. Hydro linemen in Prince George sat idle because they couldn’t work any more overtime.

Most of the emergency repairs done on the weekend in the Lower Mainland are done by private contractors, he said.

“We certainly believe it causes longer outages, McKay said.

“As far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t help us when … people [from a certain area] are not allowed to go work.”

Using private contractors also increases response time, McKay said.

“They have to get to their yard. He’s got to get his truck out.”

According to one report, a power outage on Jan. 8 in Maple Ridge lasted for 3.5 hours, but anonymous callers said it actually lasted eight hours.

McKay said the reason for limiting overtime hours is to keep the high wages of the Crown corporation being reported at the end of every fiscal year.

The base salary of a linemen making $39 an hour is about $80,000, but overtime can push that to $150,000.

McKay is making those points in a letter to Energy and Mines Minister Bill Bennett. He said past and present governments have used B.C. Hydro as a cash cow and not reinvested to upgrade infrastructure. “We’ve got a system that’s falling down around our ears.”

B.C. Hydro vice-president David Lebeter says the cost of using B.C. Hydro employees compared to contractors are comparable, when overall compensation is considered. And he disagreed that private contractors take longer to respond.

B.C. Hydro contracts out about 45 per cent of its distribution work and 55 per cent is done by B.C. Hydro crews. That’s remained constant over the last few years, he added.

“When there’s a problem with the system, the first responders are our people.”

If more help is needed, then B.C. Hydro will call in contractors, he explained.

Lebeter also said B.C. Hydro’s reliability is better. In fiscal 2013, the average duration of an outage was 2.17 hours, down from 2.47 hours in fiscal 2009.

During a recent storm in the Peace River, B.C. Hydro crews were kept on standby in Prince George, in case they were needed there, then sent to help in Fort St. John once the storm danger in Prince George was over.

B.C. Hydro is checking to see what the actual outage time was for Jan. 8 in Maple Ridge.