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May 2019

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'Skills Need to Change' for Energy Workers,
IBEW Tells Lawmakers

Utility Department Director Donnie Colston testified before a House subcommittee on March 7 about the role the IBEW and other unions can play in meeting the nation's increased demand for workers in the energy and nuclear industries.

Foremost, he told the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development, is training provided to IBEW members in conjunction by the utilities that employed them. The IBEW welcomes the federal government's help recruiting workers into good jobs available in the energy and nuclear sectors, he said.

"The grid is changing," Colston said in response to a question from Rep. Peter Kilmer of Washington. "The skills need to change within the grid itself. The jobs within the utilities are very blue collar, high paying, highly skilled jobs."

Colston told the committee the average hourly wage of an IBEW member working in utility operations is $46.24, more than double the average of a typical U.S. worker — and that's before pensions and health care are included. That's due to the fact those jobs are becoming increasingly technical and the demand for workers has increased.

"When you talk about grid modernization, the lineman of yesterday, when you set poles and pull wire, is not the lineman of tomorrow," he said. "The lineman of tomorrow has to be digitally experienced enough to know that the sensors we put on the line to communicate with the system dispatch are allowing the utility to understand what's happening with the electricity."

The hearing was called to discuss workforce and development trends in the energy and nuclear security industries. Colston noted the Code of Excellence is used in a partnership between Toledo, Ohio, Local 245 and Toledo Edison — both of which are headquartered within the district of Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, the committee's chairwoman.

"For more than 10 years, the Code has allowed the IBEW to meet or exceed our customers' needs," he said. "The Code has played a part in the creation of employment opportunities for IBEW members because of improved relationships with customers and employers."

Kaptur, who has been a strong supporter of unions and the energy sector during her 19 terms in the House, noted that 12 percent of the country's workers in the energy industry are eligible to retire — which would mean a loss of 800,000 people. Surveys have found that 76 percent of energy companies report having difficulty hiring, she said.

Providing a skilled workforce for the future isn't just necessary to ensure good jobs. It also is crucial to the nation's overall security, she said.

"In my view, energy workforce is about collaboration and establishing closer partnerships between labor, our STEM objectives, the national laboratories, industry and academia," Kaptur said.

Kaptur said that includes providing training for energy workers losing their jobs due to changes within the industry, such as workers from traditional coal-mining areas.

"Collaboration means the next generation can be nuclear welders or nuclear physicists," she said.

Discussions between Republicans and Democrats during the hearing were cordial and even GOP members expressed support for organized labor's role in providing educational and training programs. Still, some members lamented that not enough young Americans are interested in jobs in the energy sector, especially those positions that do not require a bachelor's degree.

"I think we're talking about the challenge of our time," said Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Calif. "I work with the Department of Energy on a number of issues and getting young people involved in science is a difficult problem."

Colston agreed, but added that while a strong science and technology base is important, it is no substitute for the training programs between unions like the IBEW and their utility partners.

"STEM gets them through the door," he said. "What STEM does not do is get them a skilled trade once they get through that door. What happens from that point, in conjunction with the utility, we teach them the skills they are going to need to be successful in their career."

Besides Colston, other witnesses at the hearing included Morgan Smith, chief executive officer of Consolidated Nuclear Security; Sloane Evans, senior vice president for human resources at Georgia Power and Southern Company; and Noel Bakhtian, director of the Center for Advanced Energy Studies.


Utility Director Donnie Colston testifies before a House subcommittee in March 7.

Trump Budget Takes Aim —
Again — at Federal Workers

For the federal workforce, the Trump administration's budget proposal for 2020 reads like a roadmap to civil service demise, with calls for cuts to annual leave and retirement security, pay freezes and a weakening of collective bargaining rights.

"Nothing this administration does or proposes is designed to enhance the quality of life or working conditions for our federal employees," said Government Employees Department Director Paul O'Connor. "To the contrary, each action is dedicated to accelerate the demise of our national federal workforce."

Many of the anti-worker proposals are not new — the administration has tried multiple times to freeze pay raises — and the budget as a whole is unlikely to pass given Democratic control of the House of Representatives. Still, the document serves as a list of priorities and, in many respects, the values of the executive branch.

"Clearly the administration learned nothing from the disastrous 35-day partial government shutdown," said National Treasury Employees Union National President Tony Reardon in Government Executive. "The American people know full well that federal agencies need resources and federal employees deserve a fair paycheck, and this budget proposal — essentially a blueprint for how to ruin the civil service — provides neither."

In addition to calling for a pay freeze, the budget contains a number of proposed changes to the Federal Employees Retirement System and the Civil Service Retirement System. These include increasing employee contributions, eliminating cost-of-living adjustments, changing annuity calculations for retirement from using the highest three years of work to five — effectively lowering the amount someone would get — and eliminating a supplement for those forced to retire early.

According to Vox, each federal worker would lose about $75,000 in retirement savings.

"After decades of stagnant wages and degradation of benefits in the private sector, our government is now saying we must bring the federal sector in line with the private sector, implying it's a matter of fairness, when it's really a death spiral for middle-class America," O'Connor said. "Translation: pay more, receive less, and each year fall further and further behind — in perpetuity."

Considered part of a strategy to "modernize the civil service," the budget included a request for Congress to codify a 2018 executive order that has since been struck down by a federal court. The order attempted to shorten the firing process to 30 days in which an employee could improve their performance instead of the contractually agreed upon 120.

The administration is also trying to resurrect another invalidated executive order that would narrow the scope of grievance procedures for bargaining unit employees and reduce the overall number of paid leave days. As Government Executive reported, the new proposal would create one combined category of leave that employees could access while simultaneously reducing the total number of days off by an unspecified amount.

"Thankfully for federal employees and the American people, this budget is dead on arrival in the House of Representatives," Rep. Gerald Connolly of Virginia said to the Washington Post. "Instead of recycling these tired and radical attacks on federal workers, the president should move expeditiously to implement the 1.9 percent pay increase Congress sent to his desk almost a month ago."

The pay increase was part of the budget deal hashed out in February to fund the government until Sept. 30, but the administration has yet to actually pay its employees the higher rate, nor has it issued backpay from the January shutdown.

"We cannot look at Trump's budget proposal as a stand-alone issue. It's the latest in a long series of proposed budgets and legislation designed to demoralize and crush our national, federal workforce based on a false premise that federal employees are overpaid and underworked," O'Connor said. "Shutdowns, furloughs, reduced retirement, reduced leave, pay freezes, reducing employee access to unions, it's all part-and-parcel to making federal employment unattractive, or worse, unacceptable."

O'Connor says the IBEW is continuing to fight back against the Trump administration's attacks on the federal workforce.

"We will speak as one, with clarity and conviction to overcome and prevail," O'Connor said. "Workplace rights and labor rights will remain 'rights' if, and only if, we defend them as courageously and zealously as did our forefathers and foremothers who gained them in the first place."


The Trump administration's budget for 2020 includes a number of anti-worker proposals that could harm an already embattled federal workforce.

Trump Administration Issues Weakened Overtime Rule

The Trump administration has issued its version of an Obama-era rule to extend overtime pay, one that leaves out millions of working people.

"The wait is over, but this isn't what we were waiting for," said International President Lonnie R. Stephenson. "This is a rule that leaves too many working people undervalued and underpaid."

The Labor Department set the salary threshold — the top amount a full-time, salaried employee can make to qualify for overtime pay — at $35,308 a year, an increase from the current $23,660 but also a stark drop from the $47,476 proposed by the Obama administration.

The new version, initially announced March 7, does not include automatic updates to keep up with inflation like its predecessor did. Instead, according to the Washington Post, increases will be determined every four years via the rule-making process, making it more palatable to business owners.

As the Economic Policy Institute notes, the 2016 rule was not overly expansive. In 1965, more than 60 percent of salaried employees qualified for the extra pay. By 2016, that number had dropped to just 7 percent. The Obama-era rule would have only partially restored that coverage, to roughly 33 percent.

The Labor Department estimates that about 4.2 million people would have been affected by the Obama version, compared with only 1.1 million who will be covered by the Trump proposal. EPI, however, calculates that an estimated 8.2 million working people would be left out of the regulations that were finalized in 2016. This includes 4.2 million women, 3 million people of color, 4.7 million workers without a college degree and 2.7 million parents of children under the age of 18.

"That means this administration is effectively turning its back on millions of workers," said EPI Senior Economist Heidi Shierholz. "Trump and his cabinet are again siding with corporate interests over those of working people."

The Trump version also doesn't address the "duties test" which determines whether an hourly worker is performing supervisory tasks and thus ineligible for time-and-a-half pay.

"Without any updates to the duties test, this is a really flawed rule," Shierholz told Bloomberg Law. "I think there's no way that this will not face legal challenge."

The 2016 rule was held up by court challenges from Republican-led states and business groups, despite the Labor Department meeting with more than 200 organizations on all sides of the issue and reviewing more than a quarter of a million public comments.

In Maine, the Legislature is considering a measure to raise the overtime threshold from its current cap of $33,000. As Maine Public Radio reported, Democratic Rep. Ryan Tipping is sponsoring a union-backed bill to increase the rate every year until it reaches $55,000 by 2022, with future increases pegged to inflation.

"Year after year we are watching people who own large companies get wealthier, while their employees see a comparatively smaller and smaller return on their hard work," Tipping said.


The Department of Labor, headed by Secretary Alexander Acosta, right, issued a proposed regulation to increase overtime pay for salaried workers that is well below the threshold from an Obama-era proposal.

Credit: Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia Commons