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This article was published 26/7/2018 (416 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Manitoba Hydro offered buyouts indiscriminately to staff last year, creating a situation where its ability to respond to power outages after-hours is "all but crippled," a union leader alleges.
Mike Velie, business manager for International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 2034, said a power outage early Thursday morning in southwest Winnipeg affecting 9,000 customers, could likely have been avoided.
However, Hydro was unable to find a qualified operator driver to come into work to replace the pole that had caught fire, he said. He later clarified that the on-call operator had "timed out" (worked his maximum hours) Thursday night and had to go home.
The corporation said the outage began at 4:45 a.m. Thursday, and most customers saw their power restored by 6:30 a.m.
Earlier this year, Manitoba Hydro completed a months-long "voluntary departure program" as it strove to shed 900 positions company-wide.
Velie said 31 staff trained as operator drivers or "diggers" accepted buyouts, with more than half of them living in the greater Winnipeg area.
Currently, there are only three operator drivers in the Winnipeg area that are on Hydro's standby list to provide emergency assistance after hours, he said. This is the result of the buyouts and qualified people moving to other company jobs and not being replaced, he said.
Hydro denied Thursday that there is a shortage of qualified "digger operators" to replace power poles. The restoration of power in southwest Winnipeg Thursday "went as planned," said spokesman Anthonie Koop.
He said a digger operator was not required at the Waverley site until all preliminary work had been completed. "We also had to get clearances to dig from other utilities," he added.
Koop denied that any staff who had been working as digger operators at the time of the buyouts took them. Neither did any powerline technicians, who respond to the majority of the outages, he added.
"While some staff who did take the VDP (voluntary departure program) were qualified and worked as digger operators previously, they had already moved into different positions such as planning and supervisory roles," the spokesman said in an email.
"Our customers can be assured that sufficient resources are available to respond to their needs," he said.
Earlier this year, the IBEW told the Public Utilities Board that buyouts were being done in "a slash and burn manner." Velie said Thursday that the company had "all but crippled our ability to perform" much of its work.
He said on July 7, a Saturday, Hydro received a call around 1:30 in the afternoon about a leaning pole in St. James that appeared to be broken. An employee who responded to the call contacted an on-call supervisor at about 2 p.m. to arrange for the pole's replacement.
For the next two-and-a-half hours, Velie said, the supervisor tried locating a qualified operator driver to operate a "digger truck" to replace the pole. He called all current operator drivers in the metro area, then workers with past operator experience, rural operators and then the corporation's construction department in an attempt to find an operator.
When that failed, Hydro began calling external contractors. Velie said he has since learned that the corporation wound up paying a contractor "over 10 times" the amount it would have cost to do the work internally, even after overtime costs are considered.
Koop acknowledged Thursday that "there was some difficulty calling in a digger operator" in that case but said it was due to a problem with the company's on-call listing.
"The individual whose name was identified as being on-call that day had actually moved to another position and, unfortunately, the list was not updated," he said. He said efforts to reach other digger-operators were unsuccessful. He said the cost of having an outside contractor do the work was "comparable to our own internal costs."
Meanwhile, Velie said the corporation's ability to respond to outages could be improved — even within existing staffing levels — if there were better communication between departments within Hydro. Some departments have qualified staff but don't provide standby services, he said.
He said while Hydro is correct that no 'powerline technicians' took the buyout., That's because no members of this newly named group had worked enough years to be anywhere near retirement age. He maintained that several 'linemen" did take the buyouts.
Larry Kusch didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life until he attended a high school newspaper editor’s workshop in Regina in the summer of 1969 and listened to a university student speak glowingly about the journalism program at Carleton University in Ottawa.