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Utility Workers Go Unpaid

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Tuesday, January 15, 2013

It’s not been a nice winter for National Grid. The utility that serves Wilbraham, East Longmeadow, Northampton, Williamsburg, Goshen, Athol, Palmer and some 40 other towns in the central and western parts of Massachusetts—and a total of over 3 million customers in the Northeast—was hit with a multi-million-dollar fine in the Bay State in December for poor service during severe storms.

Now the U.K.- and New York-based company is being called on the carpet again, this time for nonpayment of wages because of malfunctions in a new computerized payroll system that started up Nov. 1. The German-made system software cost National Grid $365 million.

National Grid employs about 17,000 people in Massachusetts, New York and Rhode Island. As recently as last week, many, including about 2,000 in Massachusetts, had still not received payment—or not received correct payment—for work done since November, including work in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

The result is a multi-state wage payment fiasco that is damaging workers’ personal economies and drawing the ire of unions and state officials.

In some cases the errors involved basic wages, in others overtime for employees who worked up to 16 hours a day to meet emergencies following Sandy. Some who did not receive wages were at risk for incurring penalties because they missed child support or college tuition payments, to say nothing of rent or mortgage payments.

“Working with the Attorney General’s Office, National Grid has prioritized many hardship cases that were brought to its attention over the past nine weeks,” Coakley’s office announced last week.

With desperate utility employees and their unions demanding that the wages be paid, the time-honored plea of “technical difficulties” offered by the company did not impress Coakley. Her office had earlier set National Grid a deadline of Dec. 21 to get the money to the workers, but the company failed to meet it.

Now she has ordered National Grid to pay a $270,000 fine and threatened to impose another fine for each week the utility doesn’t give the workers their pay.

In New York State, the Transport Workers’ Union reported that the malfunctions were so outlandish that while most workers had been underpaid, some had actually been overpaid. In that state, where utility customers and public officials are also irate over prolonged delays in restoring power to communities affected by Hurricane Sandy—including areas, such as Long Island, that are served by National Grid—attorney general Eric Schneidermann has subpoenaed company records as part of an investigation of the nonpayment.

National Grid officials have said they have staff working “around the clock” to fix the mess. Sandy made it worse than it would have been, they said, because employees were working odd hours and in unaccustomed places.

In Massachusetts, this fine comes on the heels of a much larger one levied against National Grid by the Department of Public Utilities in December for failing to prepare for power outages caused by storms. The DPU, whose parent agency, the Department of Energy and Environmental Affairs, is headed by former Westfield mayor Rick Sullivan, investigated the responses of National Grid, Western Mass Electric (WMECo) and NSTAR to Tropical Storm Irene and the snowstorm of October, 2011.

After that investigation, which concluded late last fall, National Grid was ordered to refund $18.7 million to ratepayers in Massachusetts.

The payment was ordered because, said the DPU, during both storms it failed to repair downed wires for “several days,” neglected to make adequate provisions for special facilities like nursing homes, and did not have enough manpower ready to deal with outages.

The penalty was higher than those assessed the other two power companies because, according to the DPU, National Grid had been warned about these deficiencies after a blizzard in 2010 and had not sufficiently upgraded its preparations for such weather events.•

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