War of words continues in FortisBC lockout, union says company saving $7 Million in wages

by Bruce Fuhr on 01 Dec 2013 http://thenelsondaily.com

Members of the IBEW say FortisBC should pass on savings due to the lockout back to customers. — The Nelson Daily file photo

Members of the IBEW say FortisBC should pass on savings due to the lockout back to customers. — The Nelson Daily file photo

The war of word continues to be exchanged between the two sides in the labour dispute at FortisBC.

The locked out International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers 213 said in press release FortisBC has saved $7 Million from not paying wages and should not be granted an increase to raise rates by the BC Utilities Commission.

“Considering FortisBC has saved millions of dollars from not paying its locked out workers, these rate increases do not seem fair or right,” said Rod Russell, Assistant Business Manager of IBEW Local 213.

“FortisBC should not be profiting from locking out its workers, especially since its billing customers for services they are not receiving.”

The IBEW Local 213 said in an October 18 submission to the BC Utilities Commission FortisBC outlined its five year plan to raise rates by 3.3%, 3.6%, 3.6%, 3.6% and 3.6%; through compounding these increases will make FortisBC rates 19% higher than they are now.

However, speaking on behalf of FortisBC, Director of Communications Joyce Wagenaar said, although labour costs have decreased, there have been increases in other areas such as “such as management and exempt staff covering work usually done by IBEW employees and legal costs.” 

“We’ve provided these updates to the BCUC as part of our annual rate setting process,” Wagenaar told The Nelson Daily.

“As part of this rate setting process, we provided a five-year plan to the BCUC that anticipates electricity rate increases of 17.7 per cent over five years. “

“These increases are required to make necessary investments in the electrical system and to address rising costs,” Wagenaar added.

“This plan does not factor in BC Hydro increases or the addition of any major projects, which are taken into account during the annual rate setting process.”

FortisBC managers have been performing the work of unionized workers since the company locked out IBEW Local 213 June 26.

More than 200 employees (all with FortisBC Electric) that includes electricians, linemen, millwrights, meter readers and office staff have been affected by the lockout that stretches from Princeton to Creston and up through the Okanagan Valley to Winfield.

FortisBC and IBEW Local 213 have been without a contract since January 31, 2013.

Russell said FortisBC is doing a less than perfect job servicing customers during the lockout.

Not only are customers getting less services from management staff, they are paying the same monthly costs as FortisBC estimates electricity consumption through the dispute instead of reading meters to obtain the correct charge.

“A lot of people are struggling to pay their electricity bills and that’s including FortisBC’s own locked out workers,” Russell explained.

“But not only has FortisBC locked them out in the cold and deprived them of a paycheque, it’s raising their bills too.

“We do not know how FortisBC intends to correct customer billing given they have their two tiered rate structure and have not been reading meters consistently.”

Waganeer disputes the union claims saying the company has been following the Essential Services Order won by the IBEW through application to the B.C. Labour Relations Board, which restricts company managers from reading customer meters,

“Since June 26, we have been estimating customers’ electricity use,” said Waganeer.

“Our estimates are based on historical usage at their address.”

Waganeersaid for new customers without any historical information, FortisBC uses a comparison based on the region where they live.

“Since September, our ability to read meters has increased but we are assessing and prioritizing based on the limited resources we have available to fulfill these duties,” Waganeer said.

“At any time, if customers feel that their bill does not reflect their use, or that energy use has changed, please call our contact center at 1-866-436-7847.”

Russell said the IBEW Local 213 has been contacted directly by customers asking if the union would lead a class action suit to recover these funds. 

IBEW Local 213 is looking into a class action suit feeling FortisBC should ensure customers are not overbilled. 

The lockout entered its sixth month last week.

No new talks are planned as the sides are spending more time at the B.C. Labour Board than at the negotiating table.

The last labour dispute at the power company was in 2001.

The job action in 2001 lasted almost four months.

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