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Whidbey PSE crews dwindling

"As union leaders and Puget Sound Energy executives wrangle over the future of the company's work force, longtime Whidbey employees of the company are wondering if that future includes them.The company's telling us we're going to be transitioned, said Gunnar Loveng, a 12-year PSE journeyman lineman based out of the company's Oak Harbor service center. The way I look at it is, we're all going to be laid off by the end of the year. We'll watch these trucks disappear and this headquarters close.If that happens, North Whidbey would be following in the heels of South Whidbey, which lost its local power office in the early 1990s.But rumors of impending layoffs and of PSE pulling up stakes on Whidbey Island are premature, said spokeswoman Dorothy Bracken. There are no present plans to close the Oak Harbor service center, she added.The concerns of Loveng and other local PSE employees stem from announcements the company started making last February regarding its intent to start using outside contractors to perform most of its construction, maintenance and emergency repair work.Puget Sound Energy is the largest investor-owned utility in the state and currently employs more than 3,000 workers.Back then, company spokesmen characterized the plan as a transition to subcontractors.Three months later, union officials say, roughly half of PSE's employees who belong to Local Union 77, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, are still waiting for the transition to play out, and for the new contractors to be selected. We had a meeting with them (PSE) on Wednesday and they narrowed their list down, but they still haven't got any (contractors), said Patty Warren, one of two PSE business reps with Local 77. But they made it real clear they wanted to get rid of the employment relationship with employees they're going to 'transition' or lay off.Warren said the transition could affect nearly half of PSE's work force. Bracken, however, said the company had no idea how many of its workers would be transitioned, but PSE's objective for them was to secure long-term job opportunities with the selected firms.As of Friday, Bracken added, the list of contracting firms to be selected had been narrowed down from 11 to six.Driving the changes within Puget Sound Energy, Bracken said, Is the growing competitive services offered by firms that specialize in construction services for utilities. The consolidation of of utility construction firms has been phenomenal,she said.Local 77's Warren was more succinct. They say they want to provide the best possible service at the lowest possible price, Warren said. Bottom line, they want to save money. They want to provide more to the shareholders and have the stock improve.And the downside to hiring outside contractors, Warren added, is that improving the bottom line could cause problems for a small isolated community like Whidbey Island, where frequent winds cause frequent power outages.The workers that you have there now, that are available full-time to turn your power back on, might not be available, Warren said of the transition plan. Construction workers go where the money is. There may be there's a big storm in Spokane and they'll be there when another storm hits Whidbey.Loveng agrees, adding that local PSE employees are more invested in Whidbey.We take a sense of responsibility for Whidbey. When the lights go out here, my lights go out, Loveng said. But if it's a contractor in Enumclaw and the lights go out on Whidbey, he's only coming here for the money."

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