Buckeye REC lays off 10 percent of workforce

Published 10:21 am Thursday, July 23, 2009

IRONTON — Buckeye Rural Electric Cooperative, Inc., the co-op that provides electricity to an eight-county region of southeastern Ohio including a large part of Lawrence County, has laid off more than 10-percent of its unionized workforce following what management officials deem “economic conditions beyond its control.”

However the union that represents the cooperative’s bargaining unit, alleges the layoffs were done to maximize the co-op’s use of non-union contracted employees in order to make a bigger profit.

Union officials also allege Buckeye REC of not redeploying those laid off into positions currently filled by contracted workers, a move the union says is in direct violation of its current five year bargaining agreement with the utility.

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The layoffs, which happened in two separate waves this month, saw positions eliminated in engineering, power line work and customer service.

In total, five bargaining employees of the 43 member Buckeye REC unionized workforce have received layoff slips in the month of July.

One of those laid off was able to “bump” into a warehouse position based on seniority when the worker in that position was placed on workers compensation, the utility confirmed.

Rodney Richardson, president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 2359 said the budget drafted by Buckeye REC management and adopted by the co-op’s nine-member board of trustees for the current fiscal year was “so flawed it was intended to run out of money so cheaper contracted workers could be used.”

Richardson puts the blame square of the shoulders of Buckeye REC Executive Vice President and General Manager Tonda Meadows who took over the day-to-day operations of the co-op two years ago.

“She put out a budget she wasn’t able to stay within,” Richardson said. “Layoffs were going to happen.”

According to the union, jobs and positions the utility currently contracts out could have been filled by its members who were laid off. Richardson cited two examples where contracted line outfitting work could have be filled by a laid off engineer while billing and answering work could have been filled by laid off customer service representative.

Richardson said the union is currently looking into whether Buckeye REC violated a provision in its current agreement that prohibits the utility from contracting out work currently being performed. In 1983, the union won a grievance against the co-op when contractors were used to perform union work.

The current bargaining agreement expires in May, 2011.

The utility claims it has have no intentions of replacing its bargaining workers with contracted employees and the decision for the reduction in force was done as a last resort.

“Procedures have been examined and altered, departing employees have not been replaced, work schedules have been modified, outside contractors are being released as soon as practical and feasible, recycling suitable material/equipment is being undertaken when prudent and budget allocations have been continually examined and reduced when possible,” the company said in a release issued after being questioned about the layoffs.

“After exploring all feasible alternatives, it has been determined that Buckeye REC must undergo a reduction in force.

In practical terms that means a lay off of certain employees. BREC has followed the terms of its bargaining unit Agreement in selecting the few chosen for lay off action.”

“It is most regrettable that we are faced with this set of circumstances.

Yet Buckeye REC has an obligation to make necessary operational decisions, however unpleasant, based on what is needed for viability and stability in the best interest of it member/consumers,” the company said.

Meadows cite that in the past 14 months alone, Buckeye REC has seen a reduction of six management and non-bargaining employees.

The company said sales have been down in 2009 because of the cooler weather and customers just cutting back in usage.

“Unfortunately Buckeye REC’s member/consumers are also struggling to make ends meet.

There has been a noticeable increase in delinquent accounts. Income has decreased compared to similar time periods in the past due to the worsening economy,” the release also stated.

As for if or when those laid off could be called back, the utility says it “can not guarantee anything.”

“Facing an array of variables beyond its control, Buckeye REC can not set a time table for a recall of the few individuals being laid off.

“However, its work force is vital and critical to Buckeye REC’s current and future needs. With that in mind we look forward to the time when all those laid off will be offered an opportunity to return to their former positions.”

The layoffs come on the heels of the cooperative’s annual meeting. The utility’s top brass are scheduled to meet on Aug. 8 at the University of Rio Grande.