NStar Labor Strike Hits Home Hard; Workers Decry Abrupt Benefit Cutoff

By JAMES KINSELLA

Striking NStar Electric & Gas employees on the Vineyard grew more bitter yesterday as word spread that the power distribution company had suspended health insurance benefits for workers on strike.

"It doesn't say much for how they feel for their employees," said Glenn Dickson of Vineyard Haven. "Usually there's a grace period. It seems like they don't care."

"My wife had to go to the hospital today and she didn't have insurance," said another lineman, Greg Williamson of Vineyard Haven.

Mr. Dickson said he and several other Vineyard NStar employees have been able to move to their spouses' medical insurance, but others don't have that option. He said one such employee, whom he declined to identify, has a daughter with ongoing heart problems. "They're up against the wall," he said.

But a spokesman for the company, Michael Durand, said striking employees who have had their health insurance suspended could choose to retain that coverage by making payments through CobraServ, which provides insurance continuation coverage for people who have lost their regular benefits.

Members of Local 369 of the Utility Workers Union of America AFL-CIO went on strike at 12:01 a.m. Monday against NStar. More than 2,000 workers, including 13 union members on the Vineyard, have gone on strike. About two-thirds of the company's work force belongs to the union.

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NStar serves 18,000 customers on Martha's Vineyard. The company delivers electricity to 1.1 million customers and natural gas to 300,000 customers in Massachusetts.

Mr. Durand said NStar is using managers and private contractors to maintain core services on the Vineyard and elsewhere, including keeping the power on and responding to any emergency issues that arise.

Mr. Durand said customers would face delays when telephoning the call center with problems. He said they also may face postponements for service hookups and upgrades while the strike is underway. No new talks between company and union representatives had been scheduled as of 3 p.m. yesterday afternoon.

On Martha's Vineyard, Local 369 members on the picket line in front of the Vineyard NStar headquarters on Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road predicted that the company would encounter a specific Vineyard problem: lineman staffing that's too thin for the Island.

In the past 21 years, Mr. Dickson and Mr. Williamson said, the number of linemen assigned to the Island has fallen from 14 to four. Yet the company's customer base on the Island has continued to grow. With vacations and employees out sick, sometimes only one lineman is available on the Vineyard to answer calls, they said.

Mr. Dickson and Mr. Williamson said the company wants to bring in more workers, but cannot attract them given the Vineyard's high housing costs. They also said that management has not acted to help provide potential workers with housing.

Mr. Durand, the NStar spokesman, said the company would not address matters related to specific locales. But he said the company maintains staffing levels that provide its customers with a high level of service.

A number of major issues in the strike also seem to have a particular Vineyard twist. One is forced overtime.

The standard shift for many company employees runs from 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Yet NStar said the majority of service problems occur after that shift, requiring the company to pay overtime to employees.

On the one hand, the company said, the overtime work routinely pushes pay higher, to where the average annual wage of an NStar lineman is $97,000. On the other hand, the company said, the union has resisted scheduling shifts outside the standard day shift.

But Mr. Williamson said overtime often adds 50 per cent more work hours to his job. He said he has his own priorities, such as spending time with his young family. He said he would gladly forgo the overtime. "I make a decent living at 40 hours," he said. He acknowledged that he is one of the higher paid workers on the Island.

Even with the overtime, Mr. Williamson said, it would take him 40 or more years to make what Tom May, the chief executive officer of NStar, received in overall compensation last year.

What angers Vineyard NStar workers is that the company can legally require them to work shifts of 18 or more hours without a break. Sometimes the shifts can climb to 30 to 32 hours. Mr. Williamson and Mr. Dickson said the staffing on the Vineyard, thinner than on the mainland, increases the chance that they will have to work extended shifts.

"You shouldn't be forced to do it," Mr. Williamson said of the overtime.

He and Mr. Dickson said the extended shifts prompt safety concerns, not so much about the line work itself, as about fatigue while driving NStar vehicles to and from the work locations.

"The driving is a huge issue," Mr. Williamson said. "You don't know when you're going to doze off."

But the linemen said the Vineyard operation has not had any problem in getting workers out to deal with service interruptions.

"We always respond," Mr. Williamson said. "There's a certain pride."

Mr. Durand said the company has offered pay increases and also is prepared to add 130 jobs to the company. But the Vineyard workers say the company also wants them to increase their contribution to their health insurance from 20 to 30 per cent, and also wishes to cut vision and dental benefits for NStar retirees. They fault the company for looking to take away benefits from people who provided the backbone of the company for decades.

The linemen acknowledge they used to grumble about NStar's predecessor, ComElectric.

"In hindsight, it was a fabulous company," Mr. Williamson said.

"The bigger it gets, the worse it gets," Mr. Dickson said. "Now, it's a corporate ivory tower."