Utility employees fearing for jobs BGE-Pepco merger may mean layoffs for up to 1,000 workers

September 12, 1996|By Kevin L. McQuaid | Kevin L. McQuaid,SUN STAFF

Early next year, John Holt may be forced to do something he has avoided for 23 years: Look for a job.

As a Potomac Electric Power Co. employee, Holt could become one of up to an estimated 1,000 casualties resulting from a planned merger between the Washington-based electricity provider and Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., which is tentatively set for completion in April.

For Holt and many of the 11,400 people employed by the two companies, the impending corporate marriage and the process to determine who will work at the new utility and who will not have caused angst, anxiety and fear.

"Nothing is certain anymore," said Holt, 42, a single father raising two 17-year-old boys. "I thought I had a guaranteed job. I was raising my kids. I thought I was set, but I'm not."

In Holt's case, his future will largely be determined by whether the planned Constellation Energy Corp. is represented by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, where he works as a full-time business representative. The prickly union representation question is one of several issues that won't be decided for months.

Although the current union contract stipulates that Holt will have a job when he returns from his three-year IBEW stint, technology has eliminated the need for his expertise as a computer application specialist for graphic meter reading. In other words, if Constellation Energy is nonunionized, Holt will be out of work. And, while he believes that the union will prevail, he has nonetheless begun taking a course to obtain a real estate agent's license and is contemplating working in his father's accounting business as a backup plan.

Compounding the situation for BGE and Pepco employees is the fact that, unlike 1990s cutbacks in the defense industry, banking companies and manufacturing conglomerates, the threat of a job loss at either company -- or virtually any utility -- is unprecedented.

In fact, voluntary separations at BGE in 1992 and at Pepco in 1994 marked the first time in either BGE's 180-year history or Pepco's century of existence that employee ranks had been significantly reduced.

Although utility employees have known that Constellation Energy intends to cut roughly 1,000 positions since the merger was announced last September, long-simmering uncertainties boiled over earlier this week when Pepco and BGE distributed proposed wage and benefit plans.

"People are afraid," said Jim Hunter, president of the IBEW's Local 1900. "It's as simple as that. People who have been there for a long time and were told they were a valuable asset are now being told they have to prove it."

BGE and Pepco contend that they need to make the cuts, which represent a large portion of the expected $1.3 billion in savings to come from the merger, to better position Constellation for anticipated competition and deregulation.

Under the employee-integration plan, Pepco and BGE workers must re-apply for even current jobs with the new company, and fill out self-assessment forms to show management their qualifications for new positions.

While management positions are beginning to be assigned from the top down now, the majority of employees won't know whether they have jobs until March, although every employee will automatically be considered for a job closely matching the one he or she now holds.

"Anytime you have a major change, people become apprehensive and nervous," said Eileen Simons, a Pepco manager of organization development. "And this is a major change. People are understandably concerned. After all, this is how they make their livelihoods, how they pay their mortgages and support their families. We understand that."

Said Linda D. Miller, BGE's manager of employee services: "We're bending over backwards to make sure this is as fair and objective as possible."

BGE and Pepco estimate that as many as 80 percent of current employees will remain in similar positions after the merger.

However, to counter the apprehension, BGE and Pepco have published brochures, set up focus groups for employees, created videos and training classes to help with the application process and made Human Resources liaisons available for counseling. The companies also have set up an appeals process for those who fail to get the job they want.

At least a few employees aren't swayed, though.

"I feel very betrayed," said Linda Eastwood, a lead processing analyst who has been with Pepco for 24 years. "I worked hard to build this company up, and it took a lot of work to get where I am. For the company now to tell me that I have to bid on a job is appalling."

Moreover, many employees complain that the process for future employment is unclear, and fear that the selections could become riddled with favoritism or subjectivity, despite BGE and Pepco claims that the process contains various "checks and balances" to prevent problems.

Eastwood and roughly 300 other Pepco workers are expected to express their frustrations today at a rally in front of the utility's Pennsylvania Avenue headquarters. At the same time, the IBEW, the union that represents 2,700 Pepco employees, is expected to hand out leaflets stating "Fewer Workers = Less Service."

Pub Date: 9/12/96

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