Submitted by Jeff Buster on Wed, 03/18/2009 - 13:51.

dominion gas worker in truck reading newspaper

All over the United States you will see electric, gas, steam, sewer, and telephone utility workers reading newspapers in the cabs of their trucks – with the truck idling - so it's cool in the summer and warm in the winter.  

But you haven’t ever seen a United Parcel Service or a Budweiser  or a Staples delivery truck driver reading a paper in their cabs, have you?
Why is that…? 
Are the utility workers more interested in news? Are they reading papers in the cab while they are waiting for spare parts to arrive on the job?  Coffee break?
ROR is the answer.    Public utilities in the US are almost all regulated under a Rate of Return model.
‘The ROR regulation provides no incentive for the firms to minimize costs, for if they reduce costs so that their returns exceed the permitted level, prices will be reduced in step. Any surplus above the permitted returns arising from cost savings will be siphoned off to the Development Fund. Under ROR regulation, monopolies operate wastefully for the simple reason that there is no pressure for them to operate efficiently. Their returns are guaranteed even if they operate with high costs.” (from Regulating Monopolies in Utilities
and Telecommunications by Price Cap by Pak-Wai Liu)
When the Dominion gas company – and any other utility-  applies to the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio for approval of their rates the utility is guaranteed that it will make a certain “acceptable” Rate of Return on its capital investment and its costs of operation.  Utilities are supposedly not allowed to make too high a return, and are generally guaranteed that they will not lose money.  
With this model, whether the worker is reading the newspaper or getting the job done doesn’t really matter to the utility, because at the end of the year the cost of the worker is carried against the “profit” from the customer income derived from the delivery of the utility service.  If the job takes one day, or a week, it doesn't negatively affect the annual profit of the utililty.    If labor costs are large, or  labor costs are small, the rate of margin (profit) that the utility is allowed by PUCO is the same.    Larger equipment and labor costs can actually increase the profit of a utility when the ROR is applied to those larger costs. 
Clearly, especially now when our nation needs to become more efficient to pull us up in the global economy, the ROR method of public utility regulation is obsolete. 
Do you think you will see any change in this behavior?  
Or will our politicians and PUCO continue to roll over?


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Utility workers

Of course, the utility worker may have just spent three hours in a hot smelly hole in the pavement or a couple hours up on a tower in the freezing rain.  Every worker is entitled to a couple breaks during the workday to eat lunch, catch a breath, and in the case of those who do physically difficult or dangerous work to bring their heart rate back down to normal. I suppose the UPS or Budweiser driver have other options for their breaks than their trucks.


Good point

But, I think Jeff's point would be--do they need to keep the engine running?

Idling Engines

I think that is a good point.  On a very hot or cold day, maybe.  Maybe the companies and the unions could negotiate a rule that allows idling only when the temperature is above or below a certain point?  Maybe there is some other, less ozone-depleting way of providing workers with a place to warm up or cool down?

Not about the idling engines, but the idling utility workers

Heart rate down?   Lunch?  A   break?

I think it is a lack of any mutually beneficial incentives and the absence of any managerial direction to perform in a workmanlike and efficient manner.  
I have been employed in strenuous construction day in and day out, winter and summer,  and reading the paper to calm one’s pulse wasn't a standard in the business.   We had two 15 minute coffee breaks and a half hour lunch.   None of us sat in our trucks reading the paper.
Please consider reviewing  the Regulating Monopolies piece I link above, and other treatises - because it seems certain that their are more efficient national utility labor policies that can be implemented to improve income for both the worker and employer,  save the ratepayer money, and advance our nation's output. 
It's not just money...it is our national outlook on work which needs to be more vigorous and results oriented…maybe no one minds "milkin' it" but me...


Utility Breaks


I think you're assuming these workers are loafing on the job, while I'm assuming they are chosing to spend their legitimate breaks sitting in their vehicles reading the paper.  Or possibly whiling away the unavoidable down time that some jobs include, no matter the best laid work plans.