It’s 9 a.m. on a sunny Thursday morning, and Kris Betz and his crew are hard at work restoring power to an apartment complex on Bryant Street.
The temperature is well above 90 degrees, but the linemen are decked out in jeans, long-sleeved shirts, gloves and hard hats, necessary protection as they climb high in the air to work with wires still buzzing with electricity.
Betz, the foreman of the crew, has a stack of paperwork waiting for him in his truck. In previous years on the job, he’d be able to sit down and knock it all out, trusting his crew to finish the work at hand. Now, he’s afraid to look away for too long.
“With these inexperienced crews, there may not be a time where you can keep your eyes away,” Betz said.
A fully staffed electric line crew should consist of at least five workers, Betz said. Nowadays, he’s lucky to field a crew of three. Due to a consistent lack of pay raises, Columbia has been experiencing a mass exodus of its experienced electric linemen. And the city is covering the shortage by hiring an outside contractor that pays its line workers much higher hourly wages.
Some who have worked for the city for 10, 15, even 20 years are going to work for other utilities offering better pay and benefits, which leaves Columbia without some of its most essential workers. The workers who remain are dangerously under-trained.
“It sounds sad, but we lose track of how many workers leave,” Betz said. “When we’re shorthanded, it’s dangerous. This is electricity. Every single aspect of our job is dangerous.”
Pay drives workers away
Columbia has 25 budgeted positions for apprentice and journeyman line workers, Jim Windsor, former assistant director of utilities, said. Five of those positions are vacant, leaving just 12 line workers and eight apprentices.
Since 2008, multiple line workers have left Columbia Water and Light, citing inadequate pay as the No. 1 reason for leaving. Many left to take jobs with Boone Electric Cooperative, a private company right here in Columbia, or with Independence Power and Light in Jackson County.
Human Resources Director Margrace Buckler provided slightly different numbers. In an email, she said the city has 29 budgeted positions for apprentices and line workers, five of which are vacant.
One of those people is Brett Helms. Helms is a lineman who worked for the city for more than 15 years. He would have celebrated his 16-year anniversary with the city next month, except he’s leaving to work for Boone Electric on Tuesday.
Helms said it was hard to leave, but Boone Electric simply offered him more money — a lot more.
Columbia’s highest paid line worker makes $33.1554 an hour, according to Buckler. A line worker for Independence makes $46.322 an hour, according to documents provided by the Independence city clerk.
Boone Electric declined to provide pay rates for its employees, but a representative for the company said it has hired multiple workers from Columbia in the past few years.
Columbia’s line workers are fed up with less-than-competitive pay. Next week Helms will become the ninth worker to have left the electric utility in the past three years, Windsor said.
Jolted to action
Windsor is one of a group of retired utility employees pushing hard for line worker pay raises. As assistant director, he oversaw the financial side of the utility and said he witnessed salary issues plaguing line workers firsthand.
Windsor first brought the issue to the city’s attention at the June 18 meeting of the Columbia City Council, where he called the continued exodus of line workers “a crisis.” Windsor said the problem has only worsened since then, and he asked the Water and Light Advisory Board for help at its July 11 meeting.
“We are allowing the electric utility to deteriorate in front of our eyes,” Windsor said at the meeting.
There, he presented a short-term solution: a 15 percent, merit-based pay raise for the city’s electric workers that would go into effect as soon as next year. This pay raise, calculated based on the current highest-paid line worker and the maximum pay raise allowed within the city’s pay scale, would make up a relatively small percentage of Water and Light’s annual budget and would send a signal to line workers that the city is willing to pay a competitive wage.
The city will still need to come up with a long-term salary plan, Windsor said.
Jay Hasheider, a member of the Water and Light Advisory Board, agrees the problem has reached a critical level. After listening to Windsor, Hasheider tasked the Water and Light staff with preparing an alternate budget for fiscal 2019 that includes the 15 percent pay raise.
“It’s quite obvious these current salaries are insufficient to keep and maintain these valuable workers,” Hasheider said.
Hasheider worries that if the city keeps losing workers, Columbia’s ability to respond to power outages will suffer. Outages, especially in the summer, can be dangerous for residents, he said.
“The absence of air-conditioning can be life-threatening in some cases,” Hasheider said. “It does present a problem for us when we don’t have qualified people to do the work that we depend on for electricity.”
The workers who remain at Water and Light aren’t receiving the level of training such a dangerous job demands, Victor Winn, a retired Water and Light employee, said. He would know; he trained line workers for eight years.
“We have very little knowledge in most of the guys that are there,” Winn said. “You’re just praying that nothing goes wrong.”
Winn said he noticed a gap in line workers’ knowledge during his time at the utility. Constant under-staffing forced the city to cut back on training for new line workers.
When Winn first began his training program in 2005, he would train new line workers two or three days a week, getting them started climbing utility poles and familiarizing them with the equipment they’d be using. The training was done away from regular job sites and allowed the workers to focus on learning one thing at a time.
“The benefit of what I trained and taught was it made it more hands-on,” Winn said. “They could ask questions, and I could show them what they needed to do and change their thought processes.”
Staffing problems really began to hit the utility in 2013, and it was forced to move exclusively to on-the-job training. Apprentices and new line workers were forced to learn the ropes in the field, something Winn said led to inadequate training.
Line workers often face dangerous working conditions. They work with live electricity and climb 45-foot poles to do overhead work on wires. The majority of power outages occur during storms or heat waves, so line workers are called out during difficult weather conditions.
“This is training they’re not getting,” Winn said. Workers such as Betz have noticed the gap in knowledge as well.
“The mistakes that are being made, the things that are being missed, are pretty routine,” Betz said.
Budget philosophy blamed
Both current and retired workers blame City Manager Mike Matthes for the problem. Many think he has been reluctant to raise line workers’ wages because the city has adopted a “one-size-fits-all” pay raise policy under which city employees can get raises only if there is room in the budget to give raises in every department.
Electric employees say the city shouldn’t lump the utility, which operates as an enterprise fund, into a group that includes general fund departments such as the Police and Public Works departments.
“When you don’t have enough people filing paperwork downtown, it’s inconvenient,” Betz said. “When we don’t have enough people (at the electric utility), it’s dangerous.”
Matthes was unavailable for comment, but city spokesman Brian Adkisson said the issue of pay affects all areas of the city, and it has been forced to “tighten the belt” year after year because of declining revenue.
If Water and Light were to find room in its annual budget to raise line workers’ salaries, the City Council and city manager would have to sign off. Matthes, however, is unlikely to do so because he wants to ensure all city employees are treated equitably, Adkisson said.
The city manager is expected to announce a 25-cent raise for all city employees during his budget announcement Friday morning.
Since 2015, the shortage of line workers has forced the city to hire PAR Electric Contractors of Kansas City to complete up to 20 percent of the city’s electric work. Under the current contract, the city is paying the company a rate of $92.51 per hour for its line workers’ work, almost three times the wage Columbia line workers get.
Under a contract scheduled to take effect Aug. 1, the PAR wage rate will rise to $95.75 through July 31, 2019.
The city paid PAR a total of $1.03 million under the current contract and has paid the company a total of $3.67 million, Adkisson said in an email.
Tony Cunningham, retired electric operations manager for Columbia, said that doesn’t make sense.
“The city shouldn’t have any problem giving line workers correct raises,” Cunningham said.
Windsor said that while it may be fiscally irresponsible for the city to pay PAR employees more than city employees, it’s fairly easy to do. This is because paying PAR employees qualifies as a service charge, rather than a personnel charge, which Windsor said is easier to hide in the city’s budget. The city also has to compensate PAR for the use of its vehicles and equipment.
Increasing the city’s reliance on contract employees is risky, Cunningham said. PAR Electric’s headquarters are in Kansas City, and its workers live outside Columbia, which means they are not readily available in emergency situations.
Breaking up family
Steve Casteel is a former line superintendent who retired in October 2017. He said the line workers who left while he was at the department hated to do it but felt they had to.
“They saw a better opportunity and they took it,” Casteel said. “And I can’t blame them for it.”
Current and former employees said the exodus is affecting the morale of the utility, whose employees view themselves as a family.
“We always called ourselves a brotherhood,” Winn said. “No matter what happened or what went wrong, if a storm hit or whatever, the guys would be there to help each other. That part’s not there anymore.”
Cunningham worked for the city for 42 years, and said he still knows some of the current employees.
“I care about them very much,” he said. “I go to bat for them all I can.”
Helms, despite accepting a job at Boone Electric, still cares about the people he’s leaving behind.
“They deserve more,” he said.
Water and Light staff is working to see whether raises for line workers can make it into the 2019 budget. The Water and Light Advisory Board is scheduled to review the budget at its August meeting.
Even if it’s approved, the raise might come too late. Multiple line workers are actively looking for other jobs, and it’s unclear whether a potential pay increase will convince them to stay.
“Whatever they do short of fixing the problem is going to be a waste of time,” Betz said. “In five years we’ll have 10 guys left.”