Connecticut lawmakers consider establishing minimum staffing standards for utilities

The General Assembly’s Energy and Technology Committee is considering legislation to mandate minimum staff levels for Connecticut’s utilities.

If Senate Bill 329 becomes law, the state Public Utilities and Regulatory Authority would have to establish minimum staffing and equipment standards. The legislation was introduced at the beginning of March, before three consecutive winter storms left tens of thousands without power for days.

The proposed legislation would impact all types of utilities, but appears to be in response to the electric utilities handling of power restoration efforts.

State Rep. Lonnie Reed, D-Branford, said lawmakers had already directed PURA once before to open a docket and come up with guidelines for minimum staffing levels and equipment numbers. Reed said lawmakers never received that report from PURA and “those minimum staffing guidelines are urgently needed.”

“Connecticut and the New England region are experiencing all kinds of unusual, harder hitting weather events and we now compete with neighboring states to import and staff up with out-of-state personnel when emergencies hit,” she said.

Vincent Pace, Eversource Energy’s associate general counsel, told lawmakers earlier this month Connecticut already has statutes that address appropriate staffing levels.

“Eversource harnesses the commitment of its approximately 8,000 employees, 3,300 in Connecticut, across three states to build a single, united company around the mission of delivering reliable energy and superior customer service,” Pace said. “Because these statutes already authorize PURA to examine appropriate staffing and equipment levels for emergency events, S.B. 329 is unnecessary and is duplicative of existing statutes.”

When asked whether company officials object to state lawmakers telling Eversource how to run its electricity and natural gas businesses, Mitch Gross, a spokesman for the utility, declined further comment.

“The statement speaks for itself,” Gross said.

Michael West, a spokesman with Orange-based Avangrid, the holding company that oversees The United Illuminating Co. and two natural gas utilities in the state, said officials “have some serious concerns about the proposed legislation” and urged members of the committee not to move ahead with it.

“We have a good system for monitoring workloads and staffing requirements, one that is regularly reviewed by PURA,” West said. “Arbitrarily establishing minimum numbers might lead to unintended consequences. What might be appropriate staffing levels for dealing with a storm aren’t necessarily needed when the weather is clear, but our customers would have to pay for those higher staffing levels.”

The proposed legislation has the support of Paula Panzarella, one of the co-founders of the New Haven-based consumer energy activist group Fight The Hike. Panzarella said she thinks the idea of establishing minimum staffing standards is a good one .

“Every company tries to cut corners when it comes to staffing and this would prevent that,” she said.

The proposed legislation also has the support of at least one local first selectman.

Essex First Selectman Norm Needleman, a businessman, is supporting the proposed legislation. Though the legislation would apply to all utilities under PURA’s jurisdiction, Needleman said legislative action is especially needed to address “prolonged power outages, inadequate staffing, and incorrect information from Eversource.”

“In recent years, I have witnessed an alarming deterioration in response to power outages by Eversource, causing inordinate delays in power restoration to homes and businesses in Essex,” Needleman said. “Eversource has drastically reduced repair personnel and equipment, instead relying on resources from private contractors and service units from outside of their system. Second, and equally alarming, is the lack of operating management oversight in directing and coordinating whatever resources are available.”

Needleman, who is in his fourth term as Essex’s first selectman, said Eversource “has ignored their responsibilities by failing to implement effective weather-related response and repair.”

“Instead, they have chosen to implement staff and equipment reductions to effect cost economies,” he said. “As a matter of public safety, Eversource should be required to maintain adequate staffing and equipment levels.”

The lack of reliable electric system is a deterrent for new businesses considering locating in Connecticut, Needleman said.