The ranks of line crews at Connecticut Light & Power Co. are so thin that it's not unusual for workers to be on call eight out of 13 weekends, especially during the summer vacation season, a longtime line worker said.
"It puts a lot of pressure on your wife. She's with the kids all the time and the guy's gone again," said the worker, who asked not to be named.
Northeast Utilities, showed its strength by cutting a deal to acquire a very large Boston-based utility.
But to hit those profit numbers, CL&P has pared its overall workforce by more than 10 percent in the past decade. Those cuts, and the entire operation of Berlin-based CL&P, will now come under close scrutiny amid ire over the company's response to last week's monumental power outage.
At issue in at least one upcoming sweeping inquiry into last week's response, announced Friday by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, is the company's overall readiness to tackle major emergencies. It's a question that defies simple answers, since regulators say CL&P's day-to-day reliability has improved since 1998, and the number of line workers is actually up over the last decade.
"They seem less and less prepared and organized in the face of major weather events, compared with a decade ago," said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., the former longtime attorney general who was actively involved when utilities sought customer rate changes. "It's a combination of a leaner workforce, fewer workers to handle emergencies and inadequate contractual obligations outside the state."
Blumenthal said the point was driven home when he was traveling around the state last Monday to survey the storm's damage.
"Local officials were hearing that CL&P was putting together a plan," Blumenthal said. "That should have been a week before."
The frustratingly plodding pace of power restoration is being thrown into high relief, coming just seven weeks after Tropical Storm Irene knocked out power to 767,000 homes and businesses in the state. The freak October snowstorm plunged 881,000 customers into darkness in CLP's 149-town market alone.
The dynamics of the situation are more complex than CL&P's performance in power restoration. The massive outage, concentrated in the north central and western parts of the state, is drawing increased attention to just how heavily forested Connecticut is, despite it dense population. The falling trees were heavier than they might have been later in the year because many had not shed their leaves.
The state's system of municipal government also makes communication between the utility and towns and cities a time-consuming process.
CL&P insists it was prepared for the storm.
"The tree damage, I don't know how we could have planned for that," NU spokeswoman Katie Blint said. "Even though we are trimming the trees along our lines, we're not trimming the trees across the street."
Utilities in other states hit hard by the October snowstorm, including Massachusetts and New Jersey, appeared to have had more resources early in the week and restored power more swiftly, though their outages were not as big.
At the peak, Massachusetts Electric had 421,000 customers of its 1.2 million customers without power. By Thursday at 4 p.m., they had 67,900 left to connect, but the last customers were the slowest. Late Friday, there were about 32,000 still in the dark.
In New Jersey, Public Service Electric & Gas Co. estimates that 571,000 of its 2.2 million customers lost power. By Friday noon, the number of storm-related outages had fallen to 7,400.
By contrast, CL&P was struggling with outages of more than 200,000 as of late Friday night, under a self-imposed deadline of 99 percent power restoration by midnight Sunday.
Over the past 25 years, the number of CL&P line workers has been cut dramatically, unions representing those employees said, even as the number of utility customers has risen. The picture is less clear since 2000, as the number is up, but CL&P in mid-decade apparently failed to hire the number of workers spelled out in its rate case.