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Western Massachusetts Electric Co. employees warn of service delay if center moves to Hadley

GREENFIELD — Employees who work at the Western Massachusetts Electric Co. service center in Greenfield and the utility’s management do not agree on how moving it to Hadley will affect customers in Franklin County.

While the more than 20 employees working in Greenfield believe customers will be hurt, management says that at most response time would be delayed by about an hour.

At least 14 of the more than 20 employees working in Greenfield have signed a letter saying customers are “guaranteed” to experience longer response and outage times, but have not gotten specific about just how much longer that might be.

“The people of Franklin County need to know that a supervisor on call 24 hours a day cannot put wire back up on a pole or change a transformer, and the troubleshooter’s main responsibility is making a situation safe first, then calling a two-man (at least) crew to repair downed wires or fix a broken pole,” they said in the letter.

The employees, who belong to a union, also said that Franklin County is unique because it is so rural.

“There are a lot of miles of wire that may feed only one or two homes,” their letter said.

William Freeman, assistant business agent for Local 455 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, said workers will have to travel from Greenfield and the surrounding area to pick up their trucks in Hadley only to have to return to Franklin County.

Freeman said at present if a truck is at a site and workers find they need something from the service center, someone can go to the service center on Shelburne Road and deliver it to the site.

“Now, they’ll have to run to Hadley and come back with it,” he said. “There’s potential for a lot of time on the road.”

Freeman said employees work a fixed number of hours each day, so an hour or more will be included in that time for traveling back and forth from Hadley. “That’s an hour or more we aren’t working on problems,” he said.

Priscilla Ress, a spokeswoman for the utility, said nothing will change what customers experience.

“The only thing that’s going to change is that workers will be leaving from Hadley instead of Greenfield,” said Ress.

She said that could add an hour to someone’s travel time if they have to go from Millers Falls to Hadley and back to Franklin County when called in on a job, but it won’t change how the company delivers its service to customers.

“We’re certainly not talking about a lot of hours in delay time,” said Ress. “We’re definitely not talking days. There are no guarantees for anyone now, because we currently have a distributed workforce that attends to the most important problems first.”

Ress said, for instance, if two people living close to each other lose power and one has a life-threatening situation, that person could have power restored several hours before the other.

“People also have to realize that response time isn’t a matter of when the rubber hits the road,” she said. “It’s about a lot of other factors.”

Ress said there may be trees down or streets may be blocked or there may be a flood or mud in the road leading to a job, which could all increase response time, no matter where a truck is leaving from.

“Our employees aren’t all sitting in the Greenfield service center waiting to be called,” she said. “They are out doing jobs, so if a crew is in Ashfield and gets a call for Greenfield, the Greenfield customers are going to have to wait until the crew is finished in Ashfield. It has always been that way.”

Ress said the move will not be made before the end of 2014 and, meantime, the company plans to continue to listen to concerns and suggestions.

“Our first priorities are customer service and public safety and that’s not going to change,” she said.

But the company’s Greenfield employees disagree and hope that individuals and businesses who are customers of the utility will contact their Select Board or town councilors, fire chiefs, police chiefs and state legislators to discuss the matter and let them know that longer outage times are not acceptable.

The employees are worried that WMECO, part of Northeast Utilities which has merged with NSTAR, is more concerned with policy and saving money than it is with customer service.

They claim that while the utility said consolidating work centers would not affect customer service, that is not true. “Far from it,” they said in the letter.

“All of our Greenfield employees live in Franklin County and are between five and 20 minutes from their bucket trucks right now,” employees said.

They said they have always been able to provide good, quick, reliable service to residents and businesses of the county and believe that would not continue if the move is made to Hadley.

“A move to house all the bucket trucks in Hadley makes no sense at all,” they said. “To be the only county in Western Massachusetts without a WMECO presence would be a slap in the face to residents and businesses.”

Those who signed the letter are linemen, electricians, clerks, garage mechanics and field technicians.

Freeman said there is also a clause in employees’ contracts requiring that they must live within 30 minutes of a service center. “What is that going to mean for us?” he asked.

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