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National News

December 7, 2012

Superstorm utility crews complain of payroll delay

MINEOLA, N.Y. — Mike Valaskatgis slept in his National Grid truck for two nights, and then on a cot two more nights before getting a bed in a hotel room during a 10-day visit to New York last month to help in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy.

The Gloucester, Mass., overhead lineman said he logged 18-hour days working in various Long Island neighborhoods to restore power. He opened his latest paycheck this week, and was disgusted to see that an estimated $7,000 in overtime has yet to be paid.

"It was frustrating up until today. Now I'm angry," he told The Associated Press Thursday in a telephone interview. "I'm going to get it eventually, but I shouldn't have to go looking for it."

Valaskatgis is one of thousands of National Grid utility workers complaining they have yet to be fully compensated. Some say they haven't received their overtime pay, others contend they have gotten paychecks with zeros, while still others say payroll deductions they arranged for mortgage, child support and alimony payments were not made, according to union officials.

The problems, according to a spokesman for energy company National Grid, stem from a conversion to a new payroll software system in the weeks preceding the Oct. 29 storm that knocked out power to millions in the Northeast.

National Grid spokesman Patrick Stella said the company is working swiftly to resolve the problems, but union officials say that just like customers who groused about being left in the dark for days or weeks longer than they expected, workers are growing increasingly impatient waiting for a resolution. Several lawsuits have been filed and complaints have been filed with state attorneys general, union officials said.

National Grid has approximately 17,000 employees in New York, Rhode Island and Massachusetts. It contracts with the Long Island Power Authority to operate electric operations in the New York City suburb and parts of Queens, where more than 1 million customers lost power. Workers from all three states have complained about incorrect or overdue paychecks, union officials said.

"We're very frustrated," said Dan Hurley, president of Braintree, Mass.-based Local 369 of the Utility Workers Union of America. "People are not getting paid." He said some workers have received paychecks for a standard 40-hour work week; others have been paid for less than 40 hours, despite working those hours plus many more in overtime. In other instances, workers have been paid at incorrect hourly rates.

"We had hundreds of workers who went down there," Hurley said of Massachusetts workers who went to New York for several weeks of repair work. "They answered the call, and they would do it again."

He said the trouble started when workers began getting calls from their wives and husbands that they went to the bank and found no direct deposit payments had been made. Others began getting calls that alimony and child support payments, which were supposed to be taken out of workers' paychecks, had not been sent out.

Don Daley, business manager of Long Island-based Local 1049 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, called the payroll problems an example of National Grid mismanagement. "I believe there was some serious negligence on the part of management," Daley said. "We're going into Week Six since this storm and things are still all screwed up."

In some instances, some workers are even being overpaid, said Mike Conigliaro, president of Brooklyn-based Local 101 of the Transport Workers Union. "We're still out there working, but things are not improving."

For some workers, child support payments have been deducted from their paychecks, but apparently have not been received by those expecting payment, Conigliaro said.

Stella, the National Grid spokesman, said staff is working "literally around the clock to fix these issues. This is a top priority in the company." He said the company started a year ago to upgrade its payroll computer system and the final conversion process had started Oct. 3, several weeks before the superstorm struck. "Any conversion would be expected to present some challenges. But then we had thousands of people working extended hours in different sites than they normally would and with significant overtime."

He said those factors "increased the potential for error. These were not normal work circumstances."

He said National Grid deals with more than 25 different unions in the three states, all of which present different work rules. "We're trying to work through all of that," Stella said. "Our goal is to make employees whole in terms of compensation."

 

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