Before the storm, Hydro-Québec lacked power line workers in Montreal

Hydro-Québec has fewer power line workers in Montreal because workers have been moving to the regions without being replaced, says Radio-Canada.

Workers have been moving to the regions without being replaced

Workers in orange jackets look and point up at ice covered trees with truck in background.
Hydro-Québec power line workers in Montreal are facing a labour shortage. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

Hydro-Québec entered this week's ice storm with a shortage of power line workers in Montreal, according to Radio-Canada.

Half of the required workforce in the city were living elsewhere at a time when the company has had to mobilize as many people as possible to lend a hand in the metropolis, the region most affected by the breakdowns.

But Hydro-Québec told Radio-Canada that it is "not an important issue."

More than 450 Hydro-Québec workers from all regions are cleaning up the streets of Montreal to reconnect homes without power as quickly as possible — a mobilization that compensates for understaffing in the city.

A Hydro-Quebec crew is being lifted to work on ice-covered power lines, in an effort to restore power in a neighborhood of Montréal.
Hydro-Quebec crews are working to restore power in Montréal on April 6, 2023. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

Dozens of vacancies

In 2017, there were 120 Hydro-Québec power line workers employed on the island of Montreal, the required number of workers for the territory. According to Radio-Canada sources, as of March 6 there were 82 of them left and about 20 were assigned to other jobs, on sick leave or only working every other week.

A Radio-Canada source said there are currently 29 teams of about 60 employees, but workers "flee to the regions at every posting opportunity."

Work in Montreal is harder than elsewhere because of the urban density, traffic difficulties and the complexity of the local electricity distribution network, Radio-Canada sources said.

Hydro-Québec was not able to elaborate on the causes that explain the departure of these workers.

'Not an important issue,' says Hydro-Québec

Hydro-Québec spokesperson Caroline Desrosiers says having about 50 teams of power line workers on the island of Montreal, that is to say a hundred workers, is necessary. A dozen teams are currently missing, "but that has no impact on the quality of service," she said.

"If there is a lack, we are able to make up for it. In normal times, various means are implemented to ensure the presence of the necessary staff at all times," said Desrosiers.

Private subcontractors and Hydro-Québec retirees are sometimes called in as reinforcements.

The state corporation confirmed that it brings workers from other regions to Montreal by paying them overtime and travel.

Two employees of Hydro-Québec are looking on as another is clearing the ice from a hydro line with a giant pole.
An employee of Hydro-Québec is de-icing power lines after a Montreal area ice-storm. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

"Where people live doesn't equate to how we deal with issues," said Pierre Fitzgibbon, minister of economy, innovation and energy, at a news conference Friday. "Right now in Montreal ... people come back." 

"During outages, we have all the flexibility, like today I've had no problem bringing teams in from other regions," added Régis Tellier, vice president of operations and maintenance at Hydro-Québec.

More people in emergency situations

Hydro-Québec says the effects of the shortage are not being felt in the aftermath of the ice storm because of the mobilization of employees from other regions.

Given the exceptional situation, and even outside of the current crisis, some teams are working 16 hours a day, several days in a row. There would be no limit on the number of overtime hours, according to Hydro-Québec.

Splicers, the equivalent of power line workers for underground lines, also lend a hand, according to Desrosiers.

According to Radio-Canada, the splicers are also understaffed in normal times. In 2010, there were about 200 on the island of Montreal; today there are 99 of them (33 teams of three splicers). There is no outsourcing to replace splicers.

The union that represents Hydro-Québec workers refused an interview with Radio-Canada because negotiations are underway and the issue of Montreal is at the heart of the discussions.

"We are working with the unions to find permanent solutions," said the spokesperson for Hydro-Québec.

city truck picking up branches
Hydro-Québec crews were faced with more than 2,200 outages. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

Delays noted by the Auditor General

According to Radio-Canada's sources, the labour shortage does cause delays in power line work — something the auditor general of Quebec pointed out in a report published in December 2022.

"The reliability of Hydro-Québec's distribution service has deteriorated in recent years," said the auditor, Guylaine Leclerc.

For example, the average duration of outages per customer supplied increased by 63 per cent between 2012 and 2021,  excluding outages due to major weather events.

"The results achieved in 2021 were well below expectations: in particular, only around a quarter of the work orders planned for the period were carried out," said the report.

Hydro-Québec was unable to confirm to the auditor that its current practices will be sufficient to compensate for its aging assets.

The auditor concluded that, given the current fieldwork capabilities and the fact that the training of power line personnel takes several years, there is a risk that Hydro-Québec will not be able to keep up with the increase in asset replacements expected over the next few years.

Based on reporting by Radio-Canada's Thomas Gerbet and Daniel Boily, translated by Erika Morris