Hydro union leader targets safety and contracting out as rate hearings wind down

The IBEW contends staff reductions at Hydro have made the company less safe and less efficient.

IBEW head says Hydro's staff reductions affect safety and service delivery

Union representing hundreds of Hydro staff say electricity rate increases should be limited to one year and then reviewed. (Mb Hydro/supplied)

One of the largest unions at Manitoba Hydro says it can only give partial support to a request for major electricity rate increases.

The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (local 2034) made a submission to the Public Utilities Board's rate application hearings on Thursday. They contend staff reductions at Hydro have made the company less safe and less efficient. 

Hearings wrap up this week with final arguments from Hydro management and intervenors to come.

IBEW business manager Mike Velie told the PUB a recent reduction of 900 staff at the Crown corporation has unreported consequences.

"What is not as widely publicized, is the ever-increasing number of safety incidents and resulting incident investigations that now take place," Velie told the board. 

Velie submitted to the board there had been "no less than 67 individual 'safety incidents' reported and investigated at Hydro in 2017.

"Staff being redirected to other jobs have resulted in shortcuts being taken, because our members are trying to do more with this ever-mounting pressure with less resources," Veile told CBC News.

In 2017 Hydro began a voluntary departure program aimed at reducing the company's workforce by more than 800 jobs.

Claims 'unfounded,' 'irresponsible': Hydro

Bruce Owen, a spokesperson for Manitoba Hydro, confirmed there have been 67 safety accidents at the company in 2017 but said the number isn't an accurate portrayal of those cases.

"Almost one half of these incidents were classified as 'near misses', which means there were no injuries," Owen wrote in an email to CBC News.

"We classify a near miss as a safety incident that helps us identify a need for additional safety training, equipment, or revised work procedures." 

Owen also contested any link between safety and the voluntary departure program, calling it an "unfounded" and "irresponsible statement."

"There is zero connection between our VDP and the number of safety incidents," he said.

Velie said of the approximately 830 employees who have taken the buyout package, 304 have been IBEW members, and it has put pressure on the staff remaining to deliver day-to-day services for the company.

Owen countered this claim, saying only about 10 per cent of Velie's bargaining unit have accepted a buyout where the average Hydro employee group has seen a 15 per cent reduction in workforce. About one third of the total departures has been office workers, he said. 

Contracting out at Hydro called reckless

Velie also said Hydro has moved some of its work out of the company and it is costing the company more than it should.

The company is struggling with increasing debt levels and cost overruns at major projects such as the Keeyask dam.

In his PUB submission, he pointed to an outsourced contract for work on the Winnipeg River system in 2015-16 where he said the company paid three times what it would have cost to use in-house labour.

Velie called that kind of operational decision "nothing short of fraudulent" and slammed Hydro for the practice.

"We're not opposed to contracting out. We recognize that contracting out has its purposes. What we're opposed to is reckless contracting out," Velie said.

"The first priority for Manitoba Hydro should be having the proper staffing levels to maintain the services we provide to Manitobans."

Numbers don't add up: Hydro

Owen said it's hard to follow Velie's math.

"We do not know how Mr. Velie came to his stated conclusion that the cost of engaging outside contractors is two to three times more expensive than doing the work with in-house staff, so it is difficult to comment," Owen wrote.

"We can say that Manitoba Hydro, like many other utilities, use contractors on specific projects or to manage peak workload. This negates the need to hire and train staff for a specific project, and lay them off when the task is complete." 

Velie said the IBEW's partial support for a electricity rate increase ends after one year and he's calling on the board of the utility to review the financial conditions of the company after that for further hikes.

"We're counting on the board to give the direction to Manitoba Hydro to hire the resources, the staffing levels … and review that in one year's time and have Hydro come back and prove a need basis for additional increases," Velie said.

Manitoba Hydro will make its final submissions to the Public Utilities Board Monday and other intervenors in the process will follow throughout the week.