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In 2011, W.Va.-American Water wanted layoffs, was denied

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Nearly three years ago the union that represents workers at West Virginia American Water Company filed a grievance saying that proposed layoffs would compromise the company's ability to provide safe water to its customers.

West Virginia American announced that it would lay off 31 employees on May 19, 2011.

Six days later, the Utility Workers Union of America and Local 537 filed a grievance with the state Public Service Commission, saying that insufficient staffing was an issue at the company.

"The Union asserted that this significant drop in employee headcount represents a risk to the ability of WVAWC to provide safe and adequate water to its customers," the order filed by the PSC said.

It also said that West Virginia American Water "is improperly reducing its staff by 31 employees thereby jeopardizing its ability to provide safe and adequate water service to its customers. The Union asserted that the reduced headcount is insufficient to properly existing run water operations."

"We've been saying this for the last few years. They have cut down on man power," Greg Lanham, vice president of Local 537, said Sunday. "They have cut back on flushing the system and haven't been doing all the maintenance."

Lanham has worked in the industry for roughly 30 years. He does not work at West Virginia American's treatment plant in Charleston but at a distribution center in Milton.

"If you don't do the maintenance on the system it will eventually break down," he said. "They were just putting Band Aids on stuff and not replacing it."

The PSC did not allow West Virginia American to go through with most of the planned layoffs, and ordered them to keep at least 316 employees.

From 2007 to 2010, the water company's total employment ranged from 298 to 324 employees.

Laura Jordan, a spokeswoman for American West Virginia Water, said it's important to clarify that the national union isn't working on the recovery efforts of the Jan. 9 chemical leak that left 300,000 customers without water for days.

"Our human resources have in no way been constrained in our response efforts," Jordan said.

The PSC has repeatedly said that the water company has the flexibility to determine proper staffing levels, but in overruling most of the layoffs it said it was worried that West Virginia American had gone too far with its proposal.

"In this case, the Commission is concerned that the sudden reduction of approximately ten percent of the WVAWC workforce," the ruling says, "may implicate that statutory obligation of WVAWC to render safe and reasonable service and the Commission's statutory obligations to assure the maintenance of quality water service."

Reach Caitlin Cook at caitlin.cook@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5113.

 


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