Power Outage

Ann Schneider has worked for Xcel Energy for 27 years, and she remembers the days when the company once known as Public Service was both a good employer and a dependable provider of gas and electricity. Workers at the Denver-based utility would stay on for decades, confident that they had secure jobs that would last a lifetime.

But today, Schneider is part of a huge energy conglomerate that serves a far-flung empire extending from Texas to Minnesota. The corporate headquarters are in Minneapolis, and decisions made there may cost Schneider her job as a customer-service representative in Denver.

"Public Service was a good place to work," she says. "If you worked hard you had a job. Now it's who will they turn on next. It's like a pack of wolves."

Xcel has already announced that it is considering closing the Denver call center, which employs sixty people. If that happens, service calls from Colorado would be routed to the company's other call centers in Amarillo, Texas; Eau Claire, Wisconsin; and Minneapolis. Schneider believes Xcel intends to close the Denver center for one reason: Last summer a large majority of the employees at the center voted to be represented by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW). Denver's call center, at 990 Bannock Street, is the only one that has voted for a union.

"They're trying to stop the union from coming into the customer service side," Schneider says. "If we're successful at getting better working conditions, the other call centers will ask for the same thing."

Xcel came into being last year following the merger of New Century Energies -- parent of Public Service -- and Northern States Power Company, which created the country's eighth-largest utility, serving twelve states. Mark Stutz, a spokesman for Xcel, says the company hasn't decided yet whether to close the Denver center, but that it has always intended to streamline its service operations. "When we announced we were merging with Northern States, we made it clear we were going to consolidate the call centers," he says. "There's no need for four call centers."

Since Xcel is a combination of what was once three separate entities, there are still different service systems in different areas, Stutz adds. He claims that Xcel can better serve its customers with one customer call system, even if the call is answered hundreds of miles away. He also implies that Denver's tight job market is a strike against the Denver call center. "There are locations in the country where people are more apt to make a call center job a career," he says.

And he insists that the possible closure has nothing to do with the vote to unionize. IBEW represents many of Xcel's technical employees, and Stutz says the company is currently negotiating with the union over the future of the call center. "We said, 'Let's talk.' We said we would negotiate the potential closure of the call center."

Those negotiations are a result of findings by the National Labor Relations Board last month that Xcel may have violated provisions of the National Labor Relations Act by ignoring the union after call center employees held their vote for representation and by trying to deal with the employees on its own. Xcel has appealed those findings.

Last week Mayor Wellington Webb asked the city attorney to check Denver's franchise agreement with Xcel to see whether the company can legally move the call center out of town. A 52-minute power outage at Denver International Airport in April led Webb to publicly lambaste Xcel's service record, and he told the city council he fears the loss of the call center might make the problem even worse.

Xcel was recently ranked as one of the worst utilities in the country for customer satisfaction, according to a quarterly survey of consumers conducted by a group affiliated with the University of Michigan. It ranked just above two California utilities whose customers have had to endure rolling blackouts. The company blames the ranking on the recent sharp rise in natural gas prices, but call center employees, who each take more than one hundred calls per day, say poor management decisions leading to deteriorating service are the real culprits.

"The first thing Xcel did was to get rid of the quality supervisors," Schneider says. "We're being set up for failure."

"People complain they can't get through to customer service," adds José Campos, an employee who helps Spanish-speaking customers. "We don't have enough people, and they're given inadequate training." He predicts that Colorado customers will be the ones who pay the price if their calls are answered in Minnesota or Texas, since it will take longer to arrange for repairs. "The customers will get the short end of the stick."

Because of high turnover and staffing shortages that now plague the company, Schneider says that customers have had to wait 55 minutes for help sometimes.

"You can fix the customer," she says. "But you can't fix the company."


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