“I will rip your throat out if you disconnect me.”
“A man ran out of the house, let two pit bulls out of their cage to attack me.”
These are only two of the many horror stories cited in incident reports by electrical workers attempting to shut off utilities for non-payment. But the threats are not the worst of it. Utility workers have actually been shot at and some seriously wounded.
To try and combat that growing menace, the Missouri State Utility Workers, representing gas, electrical, water and communications utility workers, took the issue to the Missouri legislature last year in an effort to have utility workers included in the state law that protects police, fire fighters, corrections officers, emergency personnel, highway workers in a construction zone, and probation and parole officers from assaults while trying to do their job.
Last year’s effort failed. The opposition then, and now, centers on the reluctance of some legislators to consider the lives of utility and cable workers as valuable and in need of the same protection that’s provided to the other professionals now covered by state law.
This year, however, the opportunity seems a bit better as House Bill 1516 passed out of the House Crime Prevention and Public Safety Committee although by a slim 7-6 margin with a “do pass” recommendation. It is anticipated that this provision will be rolled into one major omnibus crime bill to be considered later this session by the House.
LIVES NOT AS VALUABLE?
HB 1516 would provide utility and cable workers with the same protections as police, fire fighters construction zone workers, probation and parole officers and emergency personnel. Violators of the existing law face a host of penalties up to and including a Class A felony.
Representative Rod Schad (R-Lake Ozarks), the bill’s sponsor, said, “The opposition feels utility workers are not as valued as police officers. That’s nonsense. They provide a crucial service and they are coming under attack. They deserve the same protections.”
He added that as a professional firefighter, “I know first-hand what it’s like to come under attack while your only trying to do your job. I’ve been down that road!”
Another of the bill’s supporters, Rep. Galen Higdon (R-St. Joseph) recounted a story to the Labor Tribune of an incident in Rushville where a man whose utilities were shut down one day, the next day began shooting with a high powered rifle at utility linemen working on a bluff.
“No one should be able to assault a worker doing what he’s responsible for doing as a living,” Higdon said. “I feel strongly that the bill should be enacted into law.”
‘CHEAPENING THE LAW’
“I agree that utility workers should be protected, they have a reasonable expectation for their safety,” opponent of the bill Representative Kathie Conway (R-St. Charles) told the Labor Tribune.
However, she said, including utility workers would be “cheapening the law” or, put another way, “deluding the pool of people (the law covers) will reduce the protection for everyone.” She pointed out that her father was an Ameren IBEW member for over 40 years as a lineman, meter reader, etc., “I understand both sides.”
“I don’t believe it’s a major problem,” she said, noting that at the hearings there was only one utility worker talking about the problem. She said she had not seen the many incident reports provided to the Labor Tribune for this story.
Conway said the opposition’s concern centers on the fact that utility workers do not have training to defuse emotional situations that they confront constantly when trying to shut off a person’s utilities. If utility workers were included in this law, which has stiff penalties, “they (the utility worker) might be more emboldened (to confront a homeowner) if they have that (protection).”
She said she and others felt the utility companies should provide their workers with training on how to handle confrontational situations. “We want to see the utility companies come up with a plan for training to deal with people who have lost jobs and now are about to lose power…they need to know how to diffuse these situations.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE: We have to wonder how much ‘confrontational training’ construction zone workers, parole and probation officers and others covered by the bill actually receive to handle confrontational situations?)
“I’m not opposed to protecting utility workers, but this bill is not the vehicle for getting it done,” Conway said. She suggested that another bill might be a more appropriate vehicle for this issue.
When asked if it wouldn’t be easier just to insert “utility workers” into the current law rather than creating an entirely new law, Conway said another bill would force the utility companies to take more responsibility for their workers.
Representative Conway was also concerned that homeowners would not know that such a confrontation could face a severe penalty if utility workers were covered. Her point was that police and fire fighters are recognizable and thus it would be obvious to anyone that confronting them could carry a serious penalty. “It’s not fair to expect the public to know something like that (a harsh penalty) if they (the person being confronted) aren’t recognizable.”
NOT JUST A UNION ISSUE
“The value of a law like this should be obvious to every legislator,” said Mike Walter, president of the Missouri State Utility Workers Conference and business manager of IBEW Local 1439.
“Utility workers whether they are union or non-union, provide an essential service for people’s lives. We have enough danger in our job, but to have to go out there and be subjected to life threatening abuse just because we are doing our job is outrageous.
“This bill is desperately needed to save lives. I can appreciate people are upset with growing utility bills. And when they can’t pay them, the thought of having a service that’s essential to their life turned off makes a person really angry. The only person they can take that anger out on is the utility worker when they come out to do their job. This bill will make it clear that there is a severe penalty if they act on their frustrations,” Walter added.