PSEG Long Island cuts back on tree trimming

PSEG Long Island crews work to transfer power

PSEG Long Island crews work to transfer power lines to new utility poles along Montauk Highway in West Islip on Thursday, July 10, 2014. Photo Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

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PSEG Long Island has lopped up to $7 million from its aggressive tree-trimming program as it shifts budget money to other priorities.

The union that represents the workers said between 100 and 150 tree trimmers and ground crews working for outside contractors would be let go as a result.

Trimming trees around electric wires is considered a top priority for utilities, particularly after recent storms, because of the damage overgrown trees can do when felled by wind and rain onto power lines. PSEG said the cutback is not an abandonment of the program.

Unionized workers from four separate contractors said they were notified Friday of layoffs tied to the scale-back.

PSEG said it was trimming its $37 million budget for tree trimming to between $30 million and $32 million this year.

PSEG spokesman Jeff Weir said the money saved would be "reallocated" to other functions, including customer service and computer systems.

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He said the decision was made as part of an "ongoing review of the budget and ensuring we are at industry-best practices. . . . We said we may have to reprioritize a small portion of the budget" to keep costs in line.

Don Daley, business manager for Local 1049 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which represents 300 tree trimmers working for PSEG contractors, said the cut resulted in the loss of 100 to 150 jobs. "It's a massive layoff," he said, expressing concern that a large amount of unfinished work won't get done this year.

"The expectation was that they would do X amount of work this year based on an idea they'd be more hardened for storms, and they're cutting back right now," he said.

Daley said he has scheduled a meeting with PSEG president David Daly to express his concerns and get answers.

Weir said PSEG's prior budget of up to $37 million this year was projected to result in trimming along up to 2,700 miles of transmission and distribution lines.

Under this year's new $30 million budget, the company projects trimming along 2,100 to 2,200 miles. Weir said LIPA last year trimmed along 1,700 to 1,800 miles with an $18 million budget.

Going forward, he said, PSEG expects to have a $30 million to $32 million tree-trim budget to trim along 2,400 miles of power lines annually.

PSEG made tree trimming a high priority when it took over the LIPA contract in January, cutting a larger swath around wires and aiming to trim many more miles than had been done previously. The work was so aggressive that customers complained PSEG was doing too much.

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LIPA trustee Matthew Cordaro said it isn't unusual for utilities to cut their tree-trimming budgets, but he noted PSEG's high-profile launch of the expanded program in January and expressed concern. "Whenever tree trimming is cut, it's a harbinger of things to come which could have negative reliability and financial consequences," he said.

One unionized worker who remains on the job said there was much uncertainty around work for the rest of the year. "Nobody saw this coming," said the worker, who asked that his name not be used for fear of losing his job. The worker added that there's "still a lot of work to do," and said "they were going to be pretty hard-pressed to finish it with the workforce they were using."

Weir said the budget cut is unrelated to lower electric revenues this year because of a generally cooler summer, when system owner LIPA collects the bulk of its revenue.

He said PSEG has the ability to "scale up" the tree-trimming workforce if needed. He noted that individual contractors are making decisions on how to "close out the year" based on recent notification by PSEG of the budget cuts.

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