TURLOCK -- Customers on Tuesday started submitting claims, some for more than $1,000, for losses suffered during two power failures last weekend in the Turlock Irrigation District service area.
Lines at two power poles in rural Turlock went down, one Friday and one early Saturday. TID dispatchers looking for line workers to repair them could not reach anyone on the list, finally resorting to calling Pacific Gas & Electric Co., which sent a crew to make the fixes Sunday morning.
At Tuesday's regular TID meeting, several affected residents had their say about the episode, which comes in the middle of tense negotiations between the union representing the line workers and the TID board.
J.D. Arnold, who retired from the TID as a line worker 10 years ago, took both sides to task. "I was totally disappointed with what's going on there," he said by phone Tuesday afternoon. "Obviously, there's some kind of a struggle happening there between the line department and management."
The contract between the TID and its line workers requires voluntary call-backs after hours. If dispatchers can't get enough employees to agree to work, the utility can make the call-back mandatory.
But TID officials said they couldn't get any of the 40 qualified line workers to answer the phone Friday and Saturday. It was the first time the TID had ever had such a problem, leading to speculation that the lack of response was a coordinated effort by the union. Attempts to get help from neighboring irrigation districts, whose employees belong to the same union, were unsuccessful.
Representatives of the union, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, could not be reached for comment Tuesday. On Monday, a representative at the IBEW main office said the union would never formally or informally authorize a strike.
Voluntary, not mandatory
Steve Brazil, who retired from the TID as a line supervisor in February after 35 years at the utility, said voluntary call-backs are just that. "If something isn't mandatory, you don't have to be on call," he said.
Electrical line workers earn $45.04 per hour. According to Martin Purdy, director of human resources for the TID, the overtime rate when projects are scheduled on the weekend is $67.56 per hour. On emergency occasions such as last weekend, workers are paid $90.08 per hour.
Brazil said nobody from the TID called line workers after 4 p.m. Saturday, nor at any time Sunday.
TID spokeswoman Michelle Reimers confirmed that was the case. By 4 p.m. Saturday, the TID had found a private crew from Visalia that agreed to do the repairs. But once the crew arrived, a TID line worker went to the site and spoke with the workers. The crew foreman told TID General Manager Casey Hashimoto, who had gone to the scene, that he would have to call his union representative. The Visalia crew left without doing the work.
"After they left Saturday night, within two hours, we had that response back from PG&E saying they would send a crew out Sunday morning," Reimers said. Had there been further failures Sunday, the TID would have gone back to its employee list and started calling again.
Apologies to customers
At the TID meeting Tuesday, Hashimoto apologized to the 50 or so customers affected by the failure.
"Every single employee at TID performs a job that only exists because of TID customers," he said. "We owe it to our customers to do better than what they experienced over the weekend, and we issue our sincerest apologies."
That wasn't enough for Alisha Esquivel, who filed a claim for $650 she lost in spoiled food from her freezer and refrigerator. Esquivel had planned a birthday celebration with her family from out of town. When the electricity wasn't restored, her house kept getting hotter and hotter. And because the water system runs on a well, which uses electricity, she and her fiancé couldn't shower. They ended up staying at a hotel Sunday night, using a voucher from the TID.
"When I pay my bills, I expect to have my electricity on," Esquivel said. "If there's a Mother Nature situation, then that's one thing. But when it's a human error and it seems like intent why should that be taken out on residents?"
For information on filing a claim, call the Turlock Irrigation District at (209) 883-8209.
Bee staff writer Patty Guerra can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2343.