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Erik Burgess, Published January 10 2014

Moorhead Public Service losing power line workers to Xcel, considers increasing pay

MOORHEAD - The publicly owned utility here is considering bumping wages for its power line workers so it doesn’t keep losing those employees to higher-paying jobs in Fargo.

Xcel Energy is drawing the journeymen linemen away from Moorhead Public Service, which is an issue the MPS Commission takes seriously, said President Ken Norman.

“We don’t want to become a training ground for our neighbors to the west,” Norman said.

Two of MPS’ journeymen linemen, the highly trained workers who maintain power lines and fix them during outages, left last year for the better hourly pay at Xcel, said MPS General Manager Bill Schwandt. Another two or three could leave MPS this year, he said.

“The issue is that our experienced linemen are leaving, and we’re having to hire apprentices,” Schwandt said.

Mark Nisbet, North Dakota’s principal manager for Xcel Energy, said Xcel is not specifically targeting MPS workers. He said the company has had some recent retirements and those positions need to be filled.

MPS pays its journeymen linemen just over $37 an hour, while those at Xcel make about $3.50 more an hour, Schwandt said.

MPS now has a full staff of 11 linemen. Schwandt said it takes an apprentice lineman about four years of experience and training after tech school to become a journeyman.

Nisbet wouldn’t say how many linemen Xcel employs or what they are paid, but he said he knew of one former MPS worker who likely came to Xcel because of Xcel’s location.

“There’s a lot of different things that go into people deciding where they’re going to work,” Nisbet said.

In this situation, the reliability of MPS’ power network could be a catch-22 for the utility. Schwandt argued that MPS has a more reliable network than Xcel, so there are fewer outages and thus fewer overtime hours needed.

Some workers might be seeking a job where they can make a little extra overtime cash, he said.

“Even if we paid the same, they could go over to Xcel and make a lot more money because they (Xcel) have less reliability, so they have more trouble calls,” Schwandt said.

Nisbet said he would “take exception” to that argument, pointing out that Xcel recently invested $10 million in local substations.

“We’re proud of our reliability,” Nisbet said. “We think we’re a good company to work for and that we’re paying fair wages.”

If MPS decides to raise pay, a way would have to be found to fit it into this year’s budget. Schwandt said if MPS loses another lineman, the commission could leave the position vacant for the rest of the year and use the money to bump pay for the other 10 linemen.

Schwandt said MPS is also considering setting up an incentive program for linemen based on network reliability and customer service, but details have not been worked out.

The MPS commission is expected to discuss the matter Tuesday. Norman said he doesn’t know where the full commission stands on pay raises.

“It’s just an area that concerns us and one we have to address,” he said.

MPS voted late last year to raise electric rates by 3.5 percent and water rates by 3 percent for all customers this year, Schwandt said.

It means residential customers using 850 kilowatt-hours will see a monthly increase of $8.65 from June through August and an increase of $1.85 per month from October through May.

Residential water bills for the average user, or one who paid about $27 per month for water last year, will go up about 52 cents per month.

The increase in water rates will help pay for capital improvements, including $7.3 million in water main replacements and $6.9 million for a high-service pumping station.

About 2.5 percent of the 3.5 percent electric rate increase would cover rising electricity costs. MPS doesn’t generate its own electricity but buys it from outside sources that are raising their rates. The remaining 1 percent bump would go toward local infrastructure.

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Erik Burgess at (701) 241-5518