HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — Negotiations for a new contract between Connecticut Light & Power and its workers have deadlocked in a dispute over staffing that the union blames on heightened efforts by the utility to never again be caught short in a major storm.
Nearly 200 members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers rallied Tuesday in front of the Hartford headquarters of CL&P parent company Northeast Utilities to protest what they say is pressure to work overtime each time a storm looms.
"More boots, fewer suits," the crowd chanted as a few office workers stared out from inside the building.
Brian Coggshall, 36, an electrician at the utility, said his work group has been cut from 18 to 20 workers to 13 in the four years he's been at CL&P. Contractors are used to save money and employees are ordered to be on call whenever a storm is brewing, he said.
"The company doesn't think anyone here has lives," Coggshall said. "Summertime vacations are ruined. You're told to be on call."
The union, which represents about 1,000 workers, is demanding a 30 percent increase in staffing in a new contract. The previous agreement expired June 1.
Caroline Pretyman, a spokeswoman for Northeast Utilities, said staffing is in line with that of other leading utilities. CL&P also relies on the standard practice of calling for aid from other utilities when major storms hit, she said.
Rising health care costs and the union's refusal that workers pay more are major obstacles to a contract, Pretyman said.
"It is frustrating for us that the union leadership is trying to distort the facts," she said.
Connecticut Light & Power was harshly criticized last year for failing to adequately prepare for the remnants of Hurricane Irene in August and a freak snowstorm in October that downed tree limbs and power lines. Hundreds of thousands of customers were without power for more than a week.
The utility faces other problems related to the storm. Connecticut regulators are set to announce a decision Wednesday on whether to refuse to allow CL&P to charge ratepayers for the $290 million in costs the utility says resulted from the two storms.
Regulators also may reduce CL&P's allowed profit as a penalty. In a draft decision July 17, they said the utility's response to the storms was "deficient and inadequate."
Analyst Andy Pusateri of Edward Jones called it a "particularly difficult time for CL&P to let things get too bad."
"I just think it wouldn't look too good in the eyes of the public and the regulators to lose workers, making an already 'inadequate' environment more at risk," he said.
Labor disputes have broken out at two other utilities recently. Earlier in July, workers at the Pilgrim nuclear power plant in Plymouth, Mass., approved a contract after months of negotiations and a lockout.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo was credited by labor leaders for ending a four-week lockout of Consolidated Edison workers last week.
Pusateri said he is not aware of other labor disputes in the utility industry.
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