Large numbers of Water and Power Authority employees on St. Croix called in sick Tuesday and St. Thomas may join in Wednesday, according to several WAPA employees who asked to remain anonymous.
The number of employees who participated could not be confirmed. Calls to WAPA spokespeople for comment and confirmation were not returned as of 11 p.m. Tuesday. The employees asked for anonymity, saying they are concerned being named could impact their employment because they are not allowed to strike.
“It was not union sanctioned. The workers did it on their own,” one employee said.
He said the current sickout is over the same concerns employees raised at a protest at the Legislature two weeks ago.
“We got their attention with that protest but we did not get their respect. This is why we are making this stand: Because we want to be heard.” he said.
That employee said the WAPA board and management were in the midst of contract negotiations and workers had not received raises in six years. Workers are frustrated at delays in dealing with their contract and think WAPA management is waiting on the outcome of this year’s election before deciding how to act.
Another employee said WAPA Executive Director Lawrence Kupfer was meeting with Gov. Kenneth Mapp this week, so workers felt this was the time to send a message.
“If he is going to speak to the governor, tell him the employees are upset.” he said.
More than one employee said they are upset at working for low pay for dangerous, difficult work in all kinds of weather, while they see stateside linemen making substantially more for the same work.
“We are glad the guys from outside came, because they helped out tremendously,” one said. But workers see hundreds of outside linemen making much more for the same work done by only a handful of WAPA in-house workers.
Another employee said St. Thomas has only about nine linemen and another dozen cover all of St. Croix.
“We have nobody. We have a small staff. I can’t understand how you can pay three or four hundred linemen from the states and we can’t pay our own employees,” he said.
The highest ranking and highest trained WAPA lineman, who also gets a 10 percent bump in pay for being certified to work on live lines, makes about $45,000 per year, he said. Most make less.
After lineman Jason Julius was killed in an on the job accident, workers want some benefit system for fallen workers and their families, they said.
“He was our best lineman a guy that loved the company, loved doing his job, loved his bosses. He was just a straight up good guy. We don’t think his family has been dealt right. The governor announced he was a hero and said his family will be taken care of. But his fiancee and his son, they have not been taken care of. … We want WAPA to deal with the families of their fallen employees in a better manner. We thing there should be some kind of policy,” one said.
When the issue of worker pay has come up in the past, WAPA management has said the utility is strapped for cash, partly due to the government’s chronic inability to pay its utility bills. The territory’s public hospitals and Waste Management Authority owe most of the backlog, which was more than $40 million at the time of budget hearings in August. Officials also pointed to WAPA’s small size and limited resources but said employees deserved more. Any increase would have to be funded by the utility’s customers, officials said.