Friday, July 20, 2012

PULP Replies to Con Edison Defense of Reducing its Walk-in Customer Services During Lockout of Unionized Employees

For background, see the prior posts regarding the July 1, 2012 Con Edison lockout of unionized employees, the union’s petition to the NY PSC for investigation of service reductions, and PULP’s motion to intervene urging the PSC to Order reopening and resumption of full service at its walk-in customer service centers, as has been ordered by the Commission on three prior occasions involving Con Edison, NYSEG, and RG&E

Con Edison filed a Response to the investigation petition, and PULP has filed a Reply on the issue of diminution of services to customers at the utility’s walk-in offices.

Con Edison’s response argues that despite closing two Walk-in Centers and reducing in-person services at three others to acceptance of payments , “its customers and applicants for service have substantially the same services as they had prior to the work stoppage [i.e., its lockout of union employees].”  Con Edison's Response at page 55, footnote 39, however, basically concedes that services to customers seeking them at walk-in centers are diminished:
[Con Edison] Customer Operations has suspended the following activities:
• Walk-in Centers in the Bronx and Manhattan are closed. The Walk-in Center in Staten Island is open. Walk-in Centers are open in Queens, Brooklyn and Westchester (Mount Vernon) but representatives are not available to handle customer inquiries except via courtesy phones available at Queens, Brooklyn and Mount Vernon centers. Signage in closed Walk-in Centers alerts customers to nearby authorized facilities for bill payment.
• Reading of residential and small commercial customer non-AMR meters is suspended, except in Staten Island.
• Customer-requested physical service turn-offs and meter reading appointments are suspended. 
Thus, Con Edison customers in Staten Island still have full walk-in service and meter reading. On the other hand, customers in Manhattan and the Bronx have no Con Edison office to visit regarding problems, payment plan negotiations to restore previously shut off service, new applications for service which may be required to be in writing whenever there are prior unpaid bills at the premises, presentation of the “positive ID” Con Ed requires for new service, etc.  Customers in Brooklyn, Queens and Mount Vernon face offices that are open only to receive payments, with house telephones for the Call Center.   

Con Edison maintains that
withdrawal of its personnel from the Walk-in Center sites [Mount Vernon, Queens and Brooklyn] was done out of concern for the security of the on-site personnel and the potential that the presence of Company personnel at National Grid and Food Bazaar premises might have resulted in National Grid's and Food Bazaar's personnel and customers having to cross a Union picket line to enter for work or to transact business.
Regarding security fears, PULP responded that the company can employ security guards, as do many other businesses, and seek police assistance in the event of trouble.  PULP pointed out that the company apparently overcame its security concerns when the Staten Island office was fully staffed and remains open to provide full customer services to Con Edison’s Staten Island customers. The discretionary nature of Con Edison's deviation from the Order is illustrated by its decision to provide full services at the Staten Island Walk-in Center but not elsewhere.  

Regarding Con Edison's concern that a hypothetical union picket line protesting its lockout might inconvenience corporate neighbors and burden its neighbors' customers, PULP responded that such “hypothetical concerns should not be an excuse to abandon services required by Commission Order to be provided by Con Edison to Con Edison customers and the public.”   PULP pointed out that if the shoe were on the other foot, and if National Grid or Food Bazaar locked out their employees and they set up a picket line that was honored by Con Edison union employees, Con Edison could continue services to its customers with its management employees, just as it is proving it can do in Staten Island.

PULP noted that Con Edison in its Response touted the fact that  “approximately one year before the expiration of the 2008 Collective Bargaining Agreement, the Company commenced its preparations for the possibility of a work stoppage on July 1, 2012.”  In that entire year of strategic planning for the lockout, these vaunted, detailed preparations did not include continuation of full in-person services to customers at the Walk-in offices (except Staten Island).  Con Edison did not petition for modification of the Commission’s longstanding Order requiring walk-in services to be available every business day, or for permission temporarily to cease walk-in services in Manhattan and the Bronx, or reduce in-person services to the receipt of payments in Mount Vernon, Brooklyn, Queens, or to continue full services to customers in Staten Island that are not available to customers in other boroughs or Mount Vernon.  PULP suggested a disrespect for the often very vulnerable customers who use the walk-in offices and for the Commission and its prior Order which stopped Con Edison from closing its offices and which required reopening of offices that had been closed.  The Order mandates that
Consolidated Edison Company of New York, Inc. shall establish and maintain at least one facility in each of the five boroughs of New York City and in the County of Westchester, whether at an existing Customer Service Center, or at a Walk-in Center to be established in the nearby vicinity of a Customer Service Center to be closed. All Walk-in Centers must be accessible by public transportation and must be open to customers from no less time than 8:30 am to 5:00 pm, Monday through Friday each week, holidays excluded. Each Walk-in Center must provide, at a minimum, all of the services formerly available to customers at the company's Customer Service Centers. All such services shall be provided by Customer Care Professionals employed by Consolidated Edison Company of New York, Inc., except that the function of accepting payments may be provided by tellers or cashiers employed by Primary Agents.
Order Approving Joint Proposal, Case 99-M-0851, (Emphasis added).

Con Edison claims its telephone Call Center is a substitute for the attenuated Walk-in Center services.  Some customers or applicants with hearing, speaking, breathing or other physical or mental limitations that make telephones difficult or impossible for them to use, however, cannot be served satisfactorily by a remote call center, and they may prefer in-person dealings with the utility.  Some customers cannot afford or do not have any telephone service.  Some who need a relative, friend or neighbor to accompany them in sorting out a dispute, applying for service, negotiating a payment plan, lodging a complaint, or simply understanding a problem are not served by an office that is open only to take payments, or by a payment kiosk, or by a house phone to the Con Ed Call Center.  As PULP pointed out in its initial motion for intervention, the denial or delay of utility service can lead to tragic and costly consequences for customers and for the public.

Con Edison argues that the office closings and service reduction are only temporary.  For those seeking service, however, the fact remains that the offices are not open for the full service from Con Edison customer care professionals that is required every day from 8:30 AM to 5:00 PM by the Commission Order.

Con Edison also argued that Department of Public Service Staff is working so closely with the utility that no formal Commission investigation proceeding regarding services being provided during the lockout is needed:
The Company has communicated with the Department of Public Service (“DPS”) the development and implementation of the contingency plan both before and during the work stoppage. DPS Staff has been actively monitoring the Company’s performance during the work stoppage. In light of this diligent and comprehensive effort undertaken by the Company both in advance of and during the work stoppage, and DPS Staff’s ongoing monitoring, a special investigation by the Commission into the quality, reliability or safety of service currently being provided by the Company to its customers is unnecessary. * * * *
There are no circumstances here that would warrant a change in approach, even if the law were to allow it. [footnote omitted]  Moreover, the Motion incorrectly presumes that the Commission is not already exercising oversight of the Company’s operations, both before and during the work stoppage. In fact, the Department of Public Service (the “Department”) is actively monitoring the Company’s operations on a daily basis, having established a Strike Contingency Coordinator and team of Staff technical experts who communicate daily with the Company regarding current operations, actively visit various Company work locations, and reach out to Company personnel for additional information in order to gain a better understanding of various elements of the Corporate Contingency Plan. Moreover, communications between Staff and the Company began well in advance of the work stoppage, in the planning stage. The Company is also proactively communicating with members of the Department at various levels on a daily basis in order to keep Department of Public Service Staff informed as to all material events and circumstances associated with Company operations. 
Con Edison Response, pages. 2, 36.  

PULP replied that even if DPS Staff was somehow persuaded by Con Edison that during the lockout it should be allowed to truncate and terminate walk-in center services to some of the utility's most vulnerable customers, PSC Commissioners cannot be bound when their staff greenlights a utility's course of conduct that violates the Public Service Law or a Commission order, or is contrary to Commission policy.      

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