Kelvin Fredericks, an 18-year veteran at the Virgin Islands Water and Power Authority, stood on the Waterfront Wednesday evening along with roughly 25 of his colleagues, all lined up against the setting sun.
“We cannot strike during working hours, and we won’t,” said Fredericks. “We love our island. We love our people.”
In an after-hours protest that skirted union contracts, Fredericks and other WAPA workers rallied outside the St. Thomas Legislative Building, loudly upbraiding WAPA management for serious issues plaguing rank-and-file employees, from unsafe working conditions to unfair wages to tattered uniforms. Visibly irate linemen and groundmen walked both sides of street, wielding placards declaring their concerns. One employee held up a bare arm showing through a large tear in his blue WAPA uniform that he said has not been replaced for three years.
The Wednesday demonstration is set against the backdrop of frequently failing generating units and rocky finances for the utility. The Legislature recently approved a request by the authority to increase its debt ceiling from $500 million to $750 million, which, while not increasing WAPA’s capacity to borrow over its existing contractual obligations, does give it the legal green light to do so.
While the raised debt ceiling seems a distant issue from the concerns of WAPA technicians, it does highlight their problems with stagnant wages. According to the protesters, the last pay increase negotiated by their union was in 2013; since then, they have not seen a bump in pay.
“Six years running without negotiated wages or pay, or retroactive salary,” said Fredericks, adding that for all of St. Thomas and St. John, there are only seven linemen and five groundmen to work on any needed repairs.
“WAPA guys are always on call,” said Fredericks. “You call at 2 o’clock in the morning, we have to be there.”
Apart from flatlining wages, other pay issues beset WAPA technicians. Mark Thomas, a five-year WAPA employee, is earning $17.23 an hour as an uncertified second-class lineman, an important distinction that means working certain tasks that require higher pay – such as working with live power – without getting paid for it.
“I do it because I have the experience,” said Thomas. “But I’m not supposed to do it because they don’t pay me to do it.”
Kervin Harrigan, a 10-year WAPA employee, is in the same boat, uncertified for the repair work he performs on transformers and not receiving the roughly 10 percent bump in pay.
According to Fredericks, their union representatives shared that conversations with WAPA management “have not been good” and “they’re being stymied almost around every corner.” Meanwhile, Fredericks said he is ready to retire, and with one daughter in college, the stagnant wages are putting a strain on his ability to keep paying the bills.
“I need to pay for my daughter’s college. I have my mortgage payments,” said Fredericks. “And all of these brothers are in the same boat.”
WAPA employees are also working in unnecessarily dangerous conditions Fredericks said, which he chalks up to substandard equipment, lax supervision and deficient training. Fredericks pointed to an incident that resulted in the electrocution of WAPA employee Clayton Cable a few years ago while doing repairs in the North Side. According to Fredericks, Cable was working up a utility pole when a faulty switch, the condition of which was also unknown to the supervisor working with Cable on the ground, allowed a surge of power to bypass the switch and electrocute the lineman, causing serious injuries to both of his arms.
“It’s the supervisor’s job to know the layout of the company,” said Fredericks. “And the day before that, we were begging for training, and that is still our number one gripe.”
Then-WAPA CEO Julio Rhymer released a statement on the incident in 2016, but did not name the employee.
Then there was the death of WAPA lineman Jason Julius on Sept. 12 last year, barely a week after Hurricane Irma. Julius, who was working on hurricane recovery, died from coming in contact with energized lines while working in the Sugar Estate area of St. Thomas. Nine months later, the V.I. Labor Department’s Division of Occupational Safety and Hazard issued citations stating that WAPA “failed to ensure that the employee working on or around exposed energy lines remained at a safe distance.” Because a shotgun stick or hot stick was unavailable, Julius had to navigate his aerial bucket lift closer to the live power lines, according to the citation, resulting in fatal electrocution.
Julius’ death highlighted the lack of supervision and equipment at WAPA’s most dangerous work sites. Today, WAPA employees say that the utility is working with only two line trucks, which are almost always experiencing mechanical issues, supplemented by two of five FEMA-provided tree-trimmers being used as line trucks.
While protesters freely commented on the serious nature of these concerns, many declined to give their names for fear of retaliation. One employee, holding up a sign protesting stagnant pay, lamented that he may not have a job to come back to the next day for showing up at the protest. Harrigan, meanwhile, said employees try to avoid pushing management on specific problems for fear of getting their overtime hours cut.
“If you try to fight for your position, they beat you down and you can’t overtime, and you suffer more than ever,” said Harrigan.
The Wednesday protest made enough noise, however, drawing support not just from motorists stopping to honk and yell out encouragement, but also from lawmakers who emerged from their offices to dialogue with protesters.
“Some of the stories we hear here, we don’t hear from [WAPA] management,” said Sen. Janette Millin Young (I-STT). “Some of these employees are saying they haven’t even met [WAPA Chief Executive Officer Lawrence Kupfer]. And so just for morale, it’s good to meet with the employees, to talk to them and let them know you’re working on something.”
“What these young men are saying to me is that we have imported workers who are making much more money than them and that they have been refused increases for the past few years, so we need to be fair,” added Millin Young.
Sen. Marvin Blyden (D-STT) said he has tried to set up a meeting with both WAPA workers and management to address what he considers legitimate concerns.
“I’m very concerned in terms of the work ethic, in terms of the morale, and in terms of the other issues they have at the plant,” Blyden said.
Sen. Dwayne DeGraff (D-STT), meanwhile, highlighted the lack of hazard pay for WAPA employees (who get a 20-year work career instead) and the $250,000 in bonuses given to at most 13 WAPA supervisors, not the rank and file, for a job well done in the hurricanes’ aftermath.
Sen. Myron Jackson (D-STT) said the protesters called for the Senate to intervene on their behalf in getting WAPA management to give them long-sought answers.
“They are disgruntled and rightfully so and we will do our best to get a better understanding of the hard-working men and women of WAPA,” Jackson said.