March 29, 2002 Joseph Thomas, Water and Power Authority executive director, calls Tuesday's action by a group of disgruntled WAPA employees an "unfortunate method of trying to resolve issues."
Some 35 employees demonstrated outside WAPA's Sub Base headquarters all morning, demanding an audience with the WAPA board, which was meeting inside, or with Thomas. The board voted not to come out to speak with them. Gov. Charles W. Turnbull was called, came to the site around noon, listened to the employees and then met with the board. When their demand still was not met, about 30 of the workers entered the building, went upstairs and stormed the board room, where they voiced their grievances for about 45 minutes. (See "WAPA workers take their complaints to the top".)
One of the employees' complaints was that Thomas is "inaccessible." Thomas said Thursday that the protesters had not availed themselves of the avenues of access that by agreement between labor and management are available. "The grievance process was ignored, and that was admitted to by the union president," he said. "When I asked if he [Hubert Turnbull] had exhausted the routes available to him, he admitted he had not; so, they basically bypassed the union process."
Thomas continued, "It's not as though we have been approached and have denied [the workers] access. We had a meeting set up with one of the union heads. We waited, and he never showed."
He added, "You know when the employees worked around the clock when we had the major power outage earlier this year, we had the linemen up here for a breakfast to thank them."
Thomas said his management team is "more committed than any other I have ever worked with, working 12 to 15 hours a day with the different issues in front of us." He said he isn't certain the meeting with employees scheduled for next Wednesday is the correct way to proceed, but it was approved by the board members present Tuesday, largely to bring closure to the demonstrators' intrusion.
The protesters charged that retiring employees haven't been replaced and that contract workers are sometimes hired. Thomas said that is not accurate. The reason for not replacing those who retire, he said, is that he foresees a downturn in the economy this year and is preparing for it.
"We are seeing lower sales now; we are expecting a drop-off in water sales in the last two months of this fiscal year and a decline in electric consumption. You plan for it," he said. "You run a little lean and pay a little more overtime and, overall, you keep the price down. The jobs we haven't filled amount to about a $4 million savings, and about $700,000 to $800,000 overtime."
The purpose of this procedure, he said, is to keep the current employees through the lean times and not be forced to lay anybody off until the economy improves. The alternative would result in layoffs, and "we want to avoid that," he said.
As for contract workers, he said, "They afford us the ability to pull the plug when we don't need them, without laying off full-time employees. Sometimes you need certain specific skills for a specific period of time, and that's what we've been doing. With the combination of contract workers and overtime, we are able to keep our employees, and we can be flexible.
"The real advantage," he said, "is that we haven't got people on our payroll we'd have to lay off if the downturn occurs. We are quietly evaluating positions as they come up. As the market gets better and revenues get stronger, positions will be filled." He added, "No critical positions have been left unfilled."
The employees' complaint about contract workers had to do specifically with WAPA's request for proposals (RFP) put out to fill positions for the additional work it is taking on now that responsibility for the territory's street lights has been transferred to the utility from the Public Works Department. "We don't know in which way our money is going to come to finance that program," Thomas said, and so for now, "We don't think it's responsible to use our own employees for it." He said WAPA "hasn't seen a dime of the funds legislated for the program yet."
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