By Chris Lane
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In May, the utility set a November 1 deadline for linemen to tip the scales at no more than 280 pounds. Those who didn't measure down would get bounced from their positions -- banished without pay to either 30 days of crash dieting or a search for other jobs within Reliant. If they couldn't get rehired or shed the pounds in a month, they would be fired.
"It is very discriminatory," says Rick Childers, spokesman for Lineman Local 66 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. "They are saying you did the job in the past, you did the job yesterday at that weight -- but today, you are too heavy? That's just not fair."
The company says it has tried in recent years to get such workers to shed extra pounds because they are required to use lifting equipment -- primarily the cherry picker-type buckets on trucks that hoist them to overhead cables -- with a maximum rated capacity of only 300 pounds, gear included. And fitness is essential in emergencies, when workers might have to scramble up utility poles to rescue others.
"Whatever you and I are hired to do, we have to be able to do it," says Reliant spokeswoman Leticia Lowe. "If it means using equipment with manufacturer weight restrictions, that's what has to happen. It is a matter of safety. We wouldn't be doing our job if we weren't looking out for their interests as well."
Childers scoffs at the equipment arguments, saying it seems to be a subterfuge for simply lightening payrolls, not paunches. Several of the hoist trucks have 500-pound capacities, and even the 300-pound models are routinely tested with loads far exceeding the listed capacity, he says.
"We've always had big guys working in them," Childers says. "They've never had a bucket failure attributed to an overweight employee." The company has refused requests to beef up the capacities of the trucks. "They say it is too expensive -- that it is easier to just get rid of the employee."
Lowe says that special truck assignments can't be made during emergencies when linemen are needed and that costs are a factor. "We are talking about equipment that costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to begin with," she says. The formal policy was added only after repeated and prolonged efforts at voluntary compliance, Lowe says.
While the company contends that beginning workers are notified of the limits, Childers swears that Reliant signed on a 300-pound-plus lineman in the past few months. Brawny workers are actually preferred over the Jenny Craigs because they are stronger and can handle tasks more quickly than employees who have to rely on added equipment, he says.
Of the 400 to 600 workers who use the hoisting rigs, Reliant formally targeted about 25, although Childers says about twice that many exceed the company's weight limit.
"To a man, all of them said, 'I'm trying as hard as I can,' " Childers says. Since the edict in May, one six foot six lineman is down from 340 to 305. "He says, 'Right now, I'm in pretty dadgum good shape,' " the union official states. " 'But I don't know how in the heck I'm gonna lose that last 25 pounds -- it is gonna be bad for my health.' "
Crash diets are generally discouraged by medical authorities, who recommend monitoring and warn that weight is often regained. The union and workers have filed complaints with the National Labor Relations Board and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and they are pursuing grievances.
However, Childers says it appears that, in the current economic slump, the linemen will have to accept Reliant's revised offer. The overweight employees will be bumped down to jobs as lineman helpers, losing about $8 an hour from their $25 hourly wages. "They're saying you just have to take it on the chin and go about your business," he says.
Reliant declined to confirm that there was a new offer, saying the negotiations were confidential.
Childers maintains that the reductions will hurt customers, both those needing line hookups and those needing power restored in emergencies. "If my lights went out, I'd welcome a 300-pound guy out there to fix it, I'd welcome a 100-pound guy, a woman or anybody else to get service restored," he says. "What they are doing just isn't fair."