Tell me about the secret lives of utility workers.
November 1, 2011 9:27 AM   Subscribe

What is it like to work on a tree/line crew restoring power after a big storm?

So, my electricity has been out for the past couple of days while tree and line crews attempt to restore power after a freak snowstorm, and I expect it may be out for a few days more. I see these crews all over the place and they appear to be working hard, and I've heard on the radio and such that crews from all over the eastern U.S. have been called in to help.

Since these folks are playing such an important role in my life right now, I've become really curious about what their lives and work are like (both the locals and the visiting out-of-state folks). If I felt like distracting them from their important work (I REALLY DON'T) here are some of the things I would like to ask them (or you, if you've done this work or are otherwise familiar with it):
  • What hours do do people on a line crew work, and how long are the shifts?
  • If you're not local, where do you stay while you're working? (Especially given that many area hotels are either without power themselves or filling up with people who are fed up with living without electricity, hot water, and/or heat.)
  • What's it like working for the electric company the rest of the time, when there's no emergency on? Do you do the same kind of work, just in a less-urgent way, or is it different kinds of stuff?
posted by mskyle to Work & Money (8 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I am a electrical contractor - but I know a few lineman who work for the power company here in FLA.

After a big storm, lineman get more over-time than they want. They can put in 80 hours in a week after a storm no problem, and they have to accept the over-time hours. They have to work.

When you go out of town to work, you get a daily food allowance amount and are put up in a hotel room. The food allowance amount is minimal, like $25 per day. The hotel accommodations are cheap and it is a few guys per room - sharing a hotel room with co-workers is not always fun. But, in that situation, there is as much over-time as you want, so those guys that come from far away, work, eat, and sleep for a couple of weeks - maybe working 100 or more hours in the week. Guys are rarely never forced to accept this kind of travel work - travel work like that is usually voluntary, but the pay can be great.

Normally, lineman do a lot of maintenance work. They are basically doing the same thing: replacing parts, testing the lines, tightening connections, etc. A power grid is a complex machine, and requires a small army of skilled men to maintain.

The "Eastern Grid" which extends from FLA to Canada, from the Atlantic to the Mississippi River, is by far the largest machine every built - a grid of copper (sometimes aluminum)wires, running into every home, every business, every gov't building, everything. If you are on the Eastern grid, you can trace the copper wires from your light switch, and travel along the grid of wire, until you reach the copper wires in lights at the white house, or the copper wires at space mountain at disney world. Everything in the eastern part of North America is connected by a web of copper. The Eastern Grid is an amazing feat of construction, making the lives of millions more comfortable, and most people do not know it even exists.
posted by Flood at 9:56 AM on November 1, 2011 [12 favorites]

I have a friend who is a lineman and we have talked a good bit about it. He had a brief stint as a stockbroker a few years ago when the market was hot but went back to working for the utilities, so that should tell you how lucrative it is. The downside is the periodical nature of the work; he may earn $10,000.00 or more one week, then have to go on unemployment for a while until demand picks up again.

To get to your specific questions as far as he has told me, the hours are essentially around the clock with some time for sleep factored in (so 12-16 hours/day on some jobs); that means there is a lot of overtime which is why he can make a lot of money fairly quickly.

There are hotels that cater to traveling workers; near my house there is a Clarion Suites that always has utility trucks and trailers in the parking lot. Except in the most massive disasters there are usually areas with power on within a reasonable drive of the work site and of course, the crews are in a position to get power on to the hotels themselves (not that they do this, but most hotels are in the sort of busy commercial districts that get quicker attention from the utilities than more outlying areas; the Clarion Suites I just mentioned is right next to a Waffle House, for example. For bigger disasters they will bring in tents and portable generators and such and set up mobile kitchens and lodging for the workers. Another friend cooked at one of these sites for a couple of months after Katrina, for example.

The down-time seems to be quite variable. As I mentioned above my friend (with relatively little seniority) gets laid off and goes on unemployment from time to time but something seems to come along pretty quickly. There are always small outages to deal with (cars hitting utility poles, limbs falling on lines) as well as routine maintenance (cutting limbs before they fall on lines, replacing transformers or other components as needed). In the event of a major problem like a hurricane crews are sent from all over the country, so even if there isn't a problem nearby, crews from New York may be in Iowa after a major storm, or vice versa.
posted by TedW at 9:58 AM on November 1, 2011

My stepbrother works for an electric company in the area hit by this storm and also Irene. During Irene, he worked over 100 hours in the first 6 days, a bunch of that while his own home's power was out, and overall made a ton of overtime pay in the 2.5 weeks after the storm. He was local so didn't need to stay anywhere, not sure about that. His job involves a lot of the same stuff day-to-day, but on a smaller scale, plus more general maintenance. Folks calling because their power's blipped a few times recently, getting power back when squirrels fry themselves in transformers, replacing old cable, that kind of thing. And agreed upthread that those guys make awesome money right out of school, though it can be dangerous work and requires a ton of skill. I think different guys are on call at different off-peak times for those smaller-scale emergencies, but I'm not positive exactly how that works (and, as you might guess, he's a little busy right now so I can't ask.)
posted by tchemgrrl at 11:26 AM on November 1, 2011

I work at an electric company in the Northeast (though not as a lineworker), and the maximum amount of time that a lineworker (or any union worker) works at my utility is 16 hours followed by an 8 hour rest period. During Irene, many lineworkers were doing full 16 hour shifts and, while I haven't been paying much attention, I assume the same is true for this storm. The 16 hour rule is standard amongst the major utilities in CT.

On the back end, customer service is open 24 hours taking outage calls during these sorts of emergencies and the representatives also work a maximum of 16 hours. Some of the reps who live farther away will sleep on site in designated areas or at the nearby Omni during their rest period. Also, since my company doesn't call in relief customer service reps from other cities when the regular rep pool has been exhausted, they will pretty much pull anyone from any job within the company to answer the phones and enter outage work orders into the system (these notifications are then transmitted electronically to the lineworkers). During Irene, the department I work in ended up having to take calls, which was a shock since we don't deal with customers in our actual jobs and I really didn't want to talk to people who, by that point, had been without power for days. Fortunately, it wasn't bad at all.
posted by eunoia at 11:40 AM on November 1, 2011

Thanks everyone! This is kind of what I figured but it's interesting to have more data.
posted by mskyle at 12:49 PM on November 1, 2011

Not much to add to what's already been said here... a friend of mine is a lineman who usually works on high-tension wires, but in an emergency often gets sent all over New England and upstate New York. Lots of overtime, lots of nights on the road and interesting stories about driving heavy equipment through the Berkshires in zero-visibility blizzards.

But there's lots of down-time too; if they get dispatched to do regular maintenance and it rains, they'll sometimes wind up spending the whole shift sitting in the truck watching movies on a portable DVD player, waiting for it to stop.
posted by usonian at 1:10 PM on November 1, 2011

In 1998, there was a massive ice storm in the Northeast US, and it was even worse in Quebec and other parts of Canada. People were without power for quite a while, weeks in the US, longer in Canada. A couple months after the ice storm, I went to a comedy show where the comic involved the audience. When he asked a guy sitting up front what he did for a living, and the guy said electric utility lineman, the guy(not the comic) got a standing ovation. They work in cold, wet, icy, snowy, miserable, dark conditions, for long hours. I hope they make a ton of money, and I hope they stay safe.

We had a storm late Saturday - 5-6 inches of really wet snow, on trees that still have leaves, so the branches get weighed down and break. Power to my semi-rural neighborhood was back on in under 12 hours. I meet a lineman, I'm buying her, or him, a drink.
posted by theora55 at 3:48 PM on November 1, 2011

My power is back on now! Much earlier than I thought it would be this morning. I am very very thankful for the utility people out there working - it has been pretty unpleasant out there (we had the same storm, theora55), and there was an amazing amount of damage - I don't think there's a single yard in my town that doesn't have branches down in it, and there are plenty with whole trees in them. I was in Virginia during the 1998 ice storm but my family up in Maine still talks about it... some of them didn't have power for weeks (little rural roads/driveways with just a handful of houses on them).
posted by mskyle at 6:26 PM on November 1, 2011

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