Business & Tech

National Grid lockout causing headaches for customers

Jennifer Wilson hung up laundry with her 7-year-old daughter in their backyard.
Erin Clark for the Boston Globe
Jennifer Wilson hung up laundry with her 7-year-old daughter in their backyard.

A month after National Grid locked out 1,250 workers over a contract dispute, residents in need of gas work are experiencing significant delays.

Some have had difficulty getting meters installed or new accounts opened.

For Jennifer Wilson, a single mother of a 7-year-old girl in Newburyport, it’s been much worse: she’s had no hot water or gas for cooking for nearly a month as she waits for a hookup.

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Wilson and her daughter, Sawyer, have been taking cold showers and finally joined a gym in part so they could wash their hair without freezing. With no stove, they have been eating out or buying prepared meals. Wilson also put up a clothes line in the backyard to dry laundry, which has to be washed in cold water.

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“I am a single mom,” Wilson wrote to a customer service representative last week, “with no family nearby and I am trying to take care of my young child. I have limited funds . . . This is URGENT.”

With managers and replacement workers handling field work, the company said it is doing “a very limited amount of nonemergency work on a case-by-case basis.” Some cities have temporarily halted less urgent gas projects, citing safety concerns.

Wilson has considered reverting back to oil, which she phased out as part of a recent conversion to gas. But it would cost roughly $1,000 to fill the tank. She could buy propane converters that allow appliances to be powered by propane — a suggestion from National Grid, which told her many customers are looking into this as a temporary solution while they wait for service — but that would cost even more.

Last week, her plumber added two jugs of oil to the tank, which gave her hot water for a few days, and a friend recently loaned her an old electric stove.

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Wilson, who works in risk management for an insurance broker in Wilmington, has been trying to find the positive in the situation, teaching her daughter the power of confronting people in a kind and professional way. But her patience has grown thin.

“It’s stressful,” she said. “I don’t know why my situation isn’t an emergency.”

Wilson said Wednesday that she has been told by National Grid that workers will be at her house on Thursday.

The lockout began June 25, when the contract expired after months of contentious bargaining. The two unions offered to continue working under the old agreement, but with no progress being made, the company chose to bring in replacement workers instead, a move National Grid said was to ensure uninterrupted service. The unions maintain it is a bargaining tactic meant to pressure workers to agree to the company’s demands for changes in pensions and health care for new employees.

National Grid serves 2.2 million gas and electric customers in 231 communities in Massachusetts; the lockout affects about 85 communities.

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Wilson moved into her home in Newburyport in early June and had it converted from oil to gas. In the middle of the process, National Grid locked out its workers. Since then, she has repeatedly called and e-mailed National Grid and been told that because of the “strike” — that’s what they all call it, Wilson said — service has been delayed. Despite assurances that she is on the priority list, she is still without gas.

John Buonopane, president of United Steel Workers Local 12012, which represents a third of the locked-out workers (the rest belong to United Steel Workers Local 12003), said that in the past, National Grid has sped up service for families with young children. He also expressed concern about the order in which the work has been done at Wilson’s house.

Replacement workers installed a meter bar — piping that holds the gas meter and supplies it with gas — but haven’t yet connected her house to the main line in the street, Wilson said. Normally, the house is hooked up to the main line first, Buonopane said, because pressure from the main line could affect what type of meter bar is needed. Installing the wrong part could cause a major leak and possibly an “unintended ignition,” he said.

“I don’t know if it would be a good idea to have contractors out there doing that type of work without proper oversight,” he said, noting that the unions have been encouraging city and town officials around the state to put a moratorium on nonemergency work until regular crews are back on the job.

The unions have been monitoring the work done during the lockout, and have reported nearly 50 safety-related issues to the Department of Public Utilities, as well as taking their concerns to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the attorney general.

The unions and National Grid have met three times since the lockout began, and another meeting is scheduled for Thursday. The unions oppose proposals that would reduce benefits for new hires, namely replacing pensions with 401(k) plans, and increase health care costs. National Grid noted that similar changes have been made in many of its other unions in New England and across the country.

On July 1, National Grid — which recently reported a 24 percent annual increase in profits cut off health insurance for the locked-out workers, including several in urgent need of medical care. Arlene Jette, a customer service representative at the National Grid call center in Northborough, was able to get MassHealth to cover surgery for her 9-year-old daughter, who has a rare lung disease. But the state Medicaid program won’t cover oxygen equipment her daughter also needs, she said.

The company said Wilson’s hookup has been delayed not just by the lockout, but by confusion over whether she needed to be hooked up to the gas main, as her house had been years ago.

But Wilson said National Grid has known she needed the connection since a worker came to her house July 6. But she said she wasn’t told to submit a necessary form until a week and a half later, despite repeated conversations with National Grid.

Brian Chow, a 39-year-old infectious disease doctor at Tufts Medical Center, has also been frustrated by National Grid’s service. Chow had planned to move into his new condo in South Boston in early July, but because of a three-week delay hooking up the gas meters — which put off the inspection, and the closing date — Chow is worried his condo won’t be ready before his current lease is up Aug. 15.

“I may wind up without a place to live,” he said.

Katie Johnston can be reached at katie.johnston@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.