Union says Penticton power outage prolonged by labour dispute

FortisBC confirms managers dispatched from Oliver and Kelowna to help with repairs that took up to five hours

FortisBC says amending its new two-tiered electricity rate structure isn't as easy as people think.

Power could have been restored more quickly following a widespread outage in Penticton last week if FortisBC’s unionized employees were on the job, according to a union representative for locked-out workers.

“We would have had more people, so you’ve got to believe our response time would be better than what Fortis’s is right now,” said Rod Russell, business manager for Local 213 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

The IBEW represents about 225 FortisBC workers in the Southern Interior, such as power linemen and meter readers, who’ve been off the job for nearly five months.

The City of Penticton operates the electrical utility here, but purchases power from FortisBC, which owns the Westminster substation where the Nov. 15 outage was triggered.

According to the city, a bird flew into the main feed to the substation around 6:30 a.m. and knocked out power to thousands of customers. Most had service back by 9 a.m., although some were in the dark until 11 a.m.

City spokesperson Simone Blais said no one from the electrical utility was available for an interview this week to discuss FortisBC’s response to the outage, but that she’d been told it was “on par” with past incidents.

FortisBC spokesperson Joyce Wagenaar said in a statement the company sent non-unionized managers from Oliver and Kelowna “to assist in restoring service.” She noted, though, that the unionized workers who would have responded are based in Oliver too.

Russell suggested the company’s response times are also slowed by the managers being out of practice.

“There’s a lot of managers out doing our work, without a doubt, but we bring more to the table as far as skills, system knowledge and everything else, because we’re living and breathing it all the time,” he said.

Russell noted the lockout is also taking a physical toll on the replacements.

A manager in Kelowna was injured Nov. 1 when the crane truck he was using to off-load a transformer became unbalanced, prompting the man to jump from the truck deck to the pavement two metres below, according to Russell.

He said the manager sustained a broken leg in the accident, which likely resulted from him being unfamiliar with the equipment.

“We know there’s been a lot of things that have gone on, and unfortunately they’ve finally managed to hurt somebody,” Russell said. “We’re worried about someone being seriously injured or killed. Our jobs are dangerous.”

Megan Johnston, a spokesperson for WorkSafeBC, confirmed details of the accident, but said the investigation is ongoing.

Wagenaar said the company has reviewed the incident and determined “all safety requirements were adhered to.”

“This was our first operations injury since the labour disruption began on June 26. Overall, with managers completing the work, our safety record has improved during this labour dispute, seeing a reduction in incidents,” she continued.

There are no talks scheduled between IBEW and FortisBC, according to Russell, whose members have been without a contract since Jan. 31 and have already rejected three offers.

The most recent proposal, a five-year deal with wage increases totalling 11.5 per cent, was voted down in October by 59 per cent of members.



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