Hawaiian Electric Co. used managers and outside contractors to repair storm-damaged power lines yesterday after its unionized work force walked off the job over a contract dispute.
HECO executives said the strike would slow efforts to restore service to about 8,000 Oahu homes and businesses, mostly in the Ewa Beach area, that were without power last night.
"We do have management crews out there to see what we can do about the Ewa Beach situation in particular this evening, and we will do our best to restore as much of that service as possible," said Robbie Alm, HECO executive vice president. "I don’t want to guarantee that, obviously, we don’t have our normal full crews out there."
About 1,300 HECO workers who are members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1260 went on strike at 3:30 p.m. yesterday and began walking picket lines on Oahu, the Big Island and in Maui County.
The workers rejected last month a tentative contract agreement reached between union leaders and management, setting the stage for the strike.
ANATOMY OF A STRIKE
Key dates in contract negotiations between Hawaiian Electric and IBEW Local 1260:
September: Hawaiian Electric Co. and IBEW Local 1260 begin negotiating as the union contract is set to expire Oct. 31.
Oct. 31: Contract expires and is extended for three months.
Jan. 31: HECO and union reach a tentative agreement. Union members will vote whether to ratify.
Feb. 18: Union members vote against the new contract and authorize a strike.
Yesterday: Union members begin strike at 3:30 p.m. after contract talks break down.
Key points in the contract dispute between Hawaiian Electric and IBEW Local 1260 members:
1. Management proposal to raise the age of retirement with full benefits to 62 from 60
2. Proposed reduction in sick-leave benefits
3. Plan to create a two-tier contract with new hires receiving lower wages and benefits
4. Dispute over whether negotiated wage increases should begin with ratification of new contract or expiration of previous contract last October
HECO STRIKE: WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
QUESTION: What if I need to report an outage? Who do I call?
ANSWER: To report an outage, call the following numbers:
» Oahu: (808) 548-7961
Q: Will anybody be manning the customer service phones?
A: Yes, customers can continue to call customer service centers for help. Business hours are from 7:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Monday through Friday on Oahu and the Big Island, and 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Maui, Molokai and Lanai.
» Oahu: (808) 548-7311
Q: Are bill payments affected?
A: Walk-in services, including payment drop boxes, at Hawaiian Electric offices will not be available.
Customers can still pay by mail, through www.heco.com, or by charge or debit card. Residential customers can call (888) 813-2207, and commercial customers can call (888) 813-2215.
Customers can also pay at First Hawaiian Bank, Wal-Mart, Foodland and Sack N’ Save. During the strike period, service charges paid by customers at these locations will automatically be credited to their accounts at a later date.
Q: Will electric meters still be read?
A: Most electric meters will not be read during the strike. Bills may be estimated based on past usage. Any difference from your actual electricity use will be adjusted the next time crews do read your meter.
Q: What if I need new electrical service to be installed?
A: Installation of new services will be delayed, because priority is being given to emergency and repair situations.
Requests to start service will require at least 48 hours notice. Service will only be turned on the same day in emergency situations.
Q: How soon will power be restored to the Ewa Beach area?
A: "Clearly it’s going to be slower," said Robbie Alm, Hawaiian Electric Co. executive vice president. "We have less crews to deploy. There are crews on their way out there to pick up the situation."
Alm said management and contractor crews will attempt to finish the job, but he could not provide a timeline as to when repairs will be made.
Q: Will the power system continue to run?
A: "Power should be available to everybody unless we have a specific outage problem," Alm said. "So we’re assuming that we’ll be able to run the power plants and power lines to provide regular service to everybody.
"The biggest challenge will be when we get outages. So we have a storm-related outage to deal with today. Obviously there are outages that come from cars hitting poles or the different kind of problems that happen with our system. We will respond to those as best we can but we’ll obviously be with reduced crews."
He added that routine maintenance will also be delayed.
HECO workers said the two sides disagreed on a management proposal to raise the age of retirement with full benefits to 62 from 60; a proposed reduction in sick leave benefits; and a plan to create a two-tier contract with new hires receiving lower wages and benefits. There also was a dispute over whether negotiated wage increases should begin with ratification of a new contract or expiration of the previous contract last October. Neither company nor union officials would confirm the sticking points in the contract talks.
Gov. Neil Abercrombie urged HECO workers to make restoring power to all customers their priority.
"I have spoken with leaders of Hawaiian Electric Co. and the union. My thought is that they can set aside their respective positions during this emergency situation until the public’s safety is taken care of," the governor said. "The most important thing right now is restoring electric services for residents and ensuring their health and security, then resume negotiations."
Alm said the company and union have been holding contract talks since September. After the most recent negotiating session ended yesterday, the union called the strike, he said. Alm said there is no schedule to return to the table, but the company is ready to do so at any time.
Stanford Ito, IBEW strike captain, said workers did not plan to go on strike on such a busy day for the company and its workers. He said the strike came because HECO president and CEO Richard Rosenblum would not meet with their negotiating team.
"It’s just circumstance," Ito said. "It wasn’t like a strategic plan to say, ‘Yeah, we’re going to strike now because the power lines are down.’"
Alm said HECO hired contractors locally and from the mainland in anticipation of a strike. In addition, the company’s 1,100 nonunionized workers have been assigned shifts to handle the work formerly done by union members.
"We were, as you can probably guess, preparing ourselves for this, so we do have management crews available and contractors who are assisting us," Alm said.
"We will do our best particularly with critical services and outages, but I do want to ask the public for its patience."
Jason Cosma, who works on utility poles for HECO on Oahu, said he was scheduled to work until midnight but walked off the job in support of the union. Cosma, who was on a picket line yesterday, said he was fighting to preserve benefits such as sick leave and retirement that the company wants to take away.
"We’re not asking for more money. It’s just respecting what we had," Cosma said. He said striking was the last resort after talks were unproductive since the contract ended in October.
"It’s the last thing we all wanted," Cosma said. "We tried for a long time to avoid this."
The striking workers do a range of jobs, including power plant operations, line work, meter reading and customer service. The IBEW represents 54 percent of the company’s 2,380 workers on three islands.
Kauai is not affected by the strike because the electricity service there is provided by the Kauai Island Utility Cooperative.
Maui County officials said that they had "taken every precaution to prepare for the potential of a MECO strike."
Keith Regan, the county’s managing director, has instructed all departments to test their generators and to have all fuel tanks topped off and ready for operation in the unlikely event of a disruption in service, according to a county statement.
Quince Mento, Hawaii County Civil Defense administrator, said Hawaii Electric Light Co. has informed the county that it has more than 100 management personnel to take over operations for striking workers.
"They will do their best to take care of operations," Mento said.
The county’s emergency first responders, including police, fire and civil defense, are equipped with backup generators.
The county’s Department of Water Supply is also equipped with backup power for its pumps in case of an emergency. Also, most local radio stations also have backup generators, Mento said.
Star-Advertiser reporter Kristen Consillio contributed to this report.
STATEMENT FROM HAWAIIAN ELECTRIC CO.
Hawaiian Electric, Maui Electric and Hawaii Electric Light Company have been working to negotiate a new contract with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 1260, which represents the company’s unionized employees on Oahu, Maui County and Hawaii Island.
The former contract expired on October 31, 2010 but had been extended through January 31, while negotiations continued. However, an agreement for a new contract has not yet been reached and today at 3:30 p.m. the union employees walked out on strike.
"We are very disappointed that union chose to strike at this time. We were still willing to continue negotiations. Our goal has been to arrive at a settlement that balances the interests of our employees and our customers. We apologize for any inconvenience our customers may experience," said Dick Rosenblum, Hawaiian Electric president and chief executive officer. "We know a strike is hard on everyone, and we will continue to keep lines of communication open so that we can resume normal levels of service and bring all of our employees back to work as soon aspossible."
Non-union employees of Hawaiian Electric Company, Maui Electric Company and Hawaii Electric Light Company will be operating the companies’ electric systems during the union’s work stoppage and every effort will be made to maintain reliable electric service during this time.
In the event of an outage, repair times could be longer than normal. "We appreciate our customers’ patience as repairs will be made as quickly as possible. We hope the public understands that the top priority must be maintaining the safety of our employees and the public," Rosenblum said.
Here is some additional customer service information:
All customer outage reports will continue to be investigated and repairs made as needed. To report an outage, call:
• HECO: 548-7961
Customers can continue to call the Customer Assistance Center for help.
Business hours are 7:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., Monday through Friday at HECO and HELCO and from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. at MECO.
• HECO: 548-7311
Walk-in service – including payment drop boxes – at HECO, HELCO and MECO offices will be temporarily halted, but the following payment options are available:
Customers may also pay their bills at the following locations. During the strike period, service charges paid by customers at these locations will automatically be credited to their accounts at a later date.
• First Hawaiian Bank
Priority will be given to repair work. New service will be installed as resources permit, with priority given to emergencies.
Requests to start electric service will require a minimum of 48 hours notice. Customers should plan ahead as service will only be turned on the same day in emergency situations.
Most electric meters will not be read during a strike and bills may be estimated based on past usage. Any difference from your actual electricity use will be adjusted the next time we do read your meter.
For more information, check www.heco.com.
STATEMENT FROM MAYOR CARLISLE
"After speaking with HECO, I was informed there are 8,000 homes without electricity, 6,000 of them in Ewa Beach. The storm last night downed utility poles, which created a traffic hazard on Fort Weaver Road. The City’s first priority is traffic safety and assisting people in getting home safely. State personnel, HPD officers and employees from our Department of Transportation Services and Department Emergency Management continue to assist people in the affected areas.
"We also want to make sure there is assistance available to those people at home who may be without power and with special needs such as medical equipment. Anyone facing an emergency situation should call 9-1-1. HPD is on alert and has sufficient numbers of operators available.
"It is critical that both sides of the labor dispute make sure that the health and safety of our citizens is everybody’s primary concern. Oahu remains under a flash flood watch until 6:00 tomorrow morning. Emergency managers are closely monitoring the situation to determine if further assets are needed."
STATEMENT FROM GOVERNOR ABERCROMBIE
"I have spoken with leaders of Hawaiian Electric Company and the union. My thought is that they can set aside their respective positions during this emergency situation until the public’s safety is taken care of.
"The most important thing right now is restoring electric services for residents and ensuring their health and security then resume negotiations."