TURLOCK — Downed power lines left dozens of Turlock Irrigation District customers without electricity this weekend. An inability to get line workers to respond after hours kept the power off through two hot afternoons, said representatives of the utility, which is in the midst of negotiations with the union representing those employees.
"I can tell you that we have never gone through an entire weekend like this and had nobody respond," TID spokeswoman Michelle Reimers said.
Reimers said while there wasn't a formal strike, the union and the TID have been in negotiations since April 2011, and the line workers have been without a contract since December.
"Was it a coincidence or was it planned?" she said.
Charley Souders, business representative who handles the TID contingent of the union, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Line Workers Chapter 1245, could not be reached for comment Monday. Hunter Stern, another business representative who was on call, acknowledged that negotiations with the TID have been "tense." He said he was not familiar with the specifics of what happened in Turlock over the weekend, but it was not a union action.
"We can't authorize that," he said. "Our members have obligations to work the union does not use formally or informally any kind of a mechanism or tool in which we instruct our members not to work."
The power failures started Friday afternoon. Two power poles were affected, one off Golden State Boulevard and Youngstown Road and one Saturday at Washington and Bradbury roads. The cause hasn't been determined, but it appears both poles were hit by cars, said Herb Smart, another TID representative.
TID dispatchers started calling workers to assemble a crew. According to Reimers, after-hours and weekend service calls which are not unusual are done on a voluntary basis. If the utility doesn't get enough volunteers, the call-ins can be made mandatory.
"But that's only if contact is made," she said. "They called all 40 qualified electrical line workers multiple times. None of them responded."
No one answered the call
Stern said he couldn't say why the TID couldn't reach anyone, but social engagements or family obligations might account for it.
"There could be any number of reasons why 40 people wouldn't be available," he said.
California's Division of Occupational Safety and Health requires that a crew have at least three qualified line workers. Although the TID has some qualified line workers who are managers, all but one was out of town this weekend.
When it couldn't reach its crews, the TID reached out to the Modesto and Merced irrigation districts, with whom the utility has mutual-aid agreements. But when those districts called their crews, nobody responded, Reimers said. Line workers at those utilities are represented by the same union.
"Finally, early afternoon on Saturday, we started calling private line worker contractors," Reimers said. A crew from Visalia arrived at 6 p.m. but pulled out of the job after talking with a TID line worker and then a union official from the Visalia area, Reimers said.
In the meantime, the TID opened its Canal Drive business office as a cooling center for customers. When it became clear the failure would not be fixed Saturday night, the utility offered vouchers for hotel stays.
On Sunday morning, "we started calling other utilities," Reimers said. "We were throwing Hail Mary passes."
And a new failure, this one a problem with an underground wire in south Modesto, left another customer without power until Sunday evening.
Finally, a Pacific Gas & Electric crew responded and fixed the problems. All power was restored by Sunday evening.
No lights or AC
That was pretty late, as far as Cindy Waterson was concerned.
Waterson, who lives in rural Turlock, lost power at 3 a.m. Saturday.
"We were one of the fortunate ones," she said. With property on a corner lot, her family had access to water and power lines stretching from both roads. While the failure hit the Washington Road house, the power in the shop behind the house which is linked to a line coming from Bradbury Road stayed on. Some of her neighbors had no running water because they use electricity to operate wells.
"We ran extension cords to at least plug in our refrigerator and freezer," she said. "But we had no lights or air conditioning all weekend."
After repeated calls to the TID, Waterson's husband came across a TID troubleshooter at the pole where the line went down. The troubleshooter told Waterson's husband that the line workers were in a dispute with the TID board and not responding to service calls.
"My opinion about the whole thing is that the linemen really compromised the integrity of the department by using fellow citizens to get their point across," Waterson said. "That's just not OK in my book. We're the customers that are paying the bill which provides them a job."
Waterson's neighbor Ed Strickler said he and his wife resorted to bringing in a generator to keep their freezers cold. But they didn't have any running water, which meant no plumbing, and no electricity.
"I'm 88, and my wife is a year younger," he said. "Heat isn't our friend. With no water and no air conditioning, it was a real problem. If they were trying to make a point, I suspect those employees should find another method of doing it rather than causing elderly people discomfort."
Reimers said she got similar frustration from people who called the TID over the weekend.
"I was scheduling hotel rooms for people, and this woman told me, 'Honey, I just want to take a shower.' "
Bee staff writer Patty Guerra can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2343.