Good News for Penelec Contract Customers

- April 30, 2014 - The Utility Workers Union of America today hailed the recent announcement by FirstEnergy Solutions that it will no longer try to extract a so-called “polar vortex surcharge” from its residential consumers with “fixed price” contracts, but noted that the company is still attempting to collect the extra charges from business customers.

“FirstEnergy’s reversal of its scheme to charge extra fees for fixed-price customers is a victory for consumers,” stated Bob Whalen, president of UWUA System Local 102. “Even so, the fact that the company is still trying to collect these charges from business customers tells us that FirstEnergy has the same contempt for consumers that it has shown for hourly utility workers.”

The UWUA filed a petition with the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission earlier this month challenging the surcharges for fixed-price customers, arguing that “fixed” should mean “fixed.” FirstEnergy abandoned its surcharge scheme for residential consumers two weeks later.

On April 25, however, five groups of industrial customers petitioned to intervene in support of the UWUA’s case before the PUC, arguing that the fixed-price contracts with FirstEnergy’s business customers do not allow the company to pass through the extra charges for the same reasons urged by the UWUA in its petition for residential consumers.

“We fully support the petition filed by the industrial users in our case, and expect that FirstEnergy will eventually be compelled to drop these surcharges for all customers,” Whalen stated.

In addition, the UWUA is continuing to press its complaints before the PUC challenging the failure of FirstEnergy utilities West Penn Power and Penelec to timely read customers’ meters. The complaints charge that the two companies have engaged in “serious, repeated, and apparently willful violations” of the Commission’s regulations requiring actual reads of residential customers’ meters at least once every two months.

On April 24, the Pennsylvania Office of Consumer Advocate intervened in the UWUA meter-reading case to ensure that the companies adhere to the consumer protection regulations. The UWUA represents over 800 workers at West Penn Power and Penelec, including meter readers.

The UWUA’s consumer complaints against FirstEnergy come at a time of unprecedented labor controversy at the Akron-based company. On April 25, for example, the National Labor Relations Board issued a sweeping complaint charging FirstEnergy, West Penn Power, Potomac Edison, and four other FirstEnergy affiliates with numerous unfair labor practices.

Among other violations, the NLRB complaint charges that FirstEnergy refused to negotiate with the union over the effects of the company’s decision to close two power plants in southwestern Pennsylvania last October. Ironically, FirstEnergy’s sudden closure of the two plants contributed significantly to the spike in electricity prices this winter that ultimately led to the company attempting to foist its “polar vortex” surcharge on consumers.

On April 14, FirstEnergy ended a four-month lockout imposed on 142 UWUA members at Penelec in central Pennsylvania in an unsuccessful attempt to force workers to accept unfair cutbacks in benefits, working conditions, and customer service standards. Charges filed by the UWUA challenging FirstEnergy’s conduct involving the lockout are under investigation by the NLRB.

In West Virginia, the NLRB issued a complaint on February 24 charging that FirstEnergy illegally cut healthcare benefits and raised employees’ premium costs at the company’s Harrison Power Station without negotiating with the UWUA. A similar complaint issued by the Board last year resulted in a $1.25 million backpay settlement for Harrison employees.

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