Big bucks for workers: It's not just City Light
Puget Sound Energy line workers averaged $114,000 in total pay. At Seattle City Light, the average total pay for line workers was $142,783.
Seattle Times staff reporters
Overtime rules that allowed 27 Seattle City Light workers to earn more than $100,000 each in extra pay last year also propelled other local utility workers into six-figure salaries.
As the industry grappled with worker shortages, Puget Sound Energy line workers averaged $114,000 in total pay, including overtime averaging 17 hours per week. At Seattle City Light, the average total pay for line workers was $142,783, based on city data.
Under overtime rules negotiated by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 77, workers are paid double for overtime shifts as well as prior regular shifts if there isn't a break of at least eight hours in between.
"Those are fairly universal," Roger Thompson, Puget Sound Energy spokesman, said of electrical-worker labor contracts in the region. City Light, Puget Sound Energy and Snohomish County Public Utility District follow the same rules.
Snohomish County PUD, which did not provide information on how much overtime its employees worked or how much pay they received, said its highest-paid employee last year was the general manager, who made $251,000.
At Seattle City Light, where Superintendent Jorge Carrasco made $224,019 last year, 11 line workers made more than $200,000 in total pay. Three of them became the highest-paid employees in the city, and one said he worked an average of 80 to 90 total hours per week.
City Light's budget last year was $958 million. The $25.4 million overtime expense -- about $15 million more than budgeted -- isn't large enough to force customers' rates to rise, City Light officials say. The City Council approved a two-year, 8.4 percent rate cut that took effect in January.
Don Guillot, business manager for the union that represents 550 City Light employees, including line workers, said he was surprised overtime wasn't higher at the city-owned utility.
Guillot's union, IBEW Local 77, also represents line workers at Puget Sound Energy and Snohomish County PUD. "Overtime is high everywhere," he said. At Puget Sound Energy, "800 and 900 hours of overtime is not uncommon" for a line worker, he said.
Guillot said workers do not work more slowly to increase their overtime pay. "It's never come across my desk and ... we don't support slowdowns on the job," he said.
City Light overtime has increased because the utility has left vacant positions open as a cost-cutting measure, Guillot said, and has let repairs and upgrades to its electrical system slide as well. In addition, Seattle's building boom has increased work and required more overtime. It's not clear whether paying the overtime is costing the utilities more than hiring new people to do the work.
City officials said they are concerned about how the long work hours affect productivity and safety, but the lack of workers, construction projects and damage from the December windstorm prompted them to ask employees to work extra hours. In all, the utility paid more than double in 2006 what it paid for overtime the year before.
City Light's high overtime bills were expected to some degree. Carrasco told the City Council last fall the utility would double its overtime spending and "still experience great difficulty in meeting our normal workload."
Carrasco said last fall City Light was "struggling" to meet customer needs. He said the time it took to connect new customers was "deplorable." Power outages were occurring more often and taking longer to fix, he said.
Adding to City Light's problems was "enormous competition" for skilled workers, he said. The utility had 50 vacancies out of 180 line-worker jobs last year.
"The workers in their late 40s, 50s, they're nearing retirement age and then we've got a pretty good apprentice class, but in between there are not a lot of other folks," Suzanne Hartman, City Light's spokeswoman, said Friday.
Other utilities feel the worker shortage as well.
Puget Sound Energy has 2,400 total employees and projects that 42 percent will be eligible to retire in the next five to 10 years.
"We're very aggressively recruiting the next generation of line workers," said Thompson, the PSE spokesman. "It's not unique to us or City Light; it's true across the nation."
Adding to the shortage, a San Diego utility lured many apprentice-trained line workers away during Seattle City Light contract negotiations from 2004 to 2006.
In the past three years, enrollment in City Light's apprentice program has increased from 10 to 50, but it takes four years to train those workers.
City Light hired a full-time recruiter in April, and in addition to advertising in national trade publications, it is posting ads along Interstate 5 down to Oregon.