ELECTRICITY distributors Ausgrid, Endeavour Energy and Essential Energy are under fire for job cutting thousands of jobs - including 40 recently in the Hunter - that critics say are behind the delays to restore power services after a summer dominated by bushfires and storms.
Ausgrid, which covers Sydney, the Central Coast and most of the Hunter, has defended its staffing levels, saying the damage to its network in the February storms was "immense".
Ausgrid said on Friday that the storms left more than 3000 hazards such as fallen trees across the network, which meant replacing more than 180 power poles and 250 kilometres of powerlines.
But the NSW Labor opposition and the Electrical Trades Union have weighed into the Coalition government on the electricity distributors - with Essential Energy being fully state-owned and Ausgrid and Endeavour Energy each partly privatised with the state holding a 49.6 per cent stake.
With Ausgrid in Sydney to Newcastle, Endeavour covers the south coast and some areas west of Sydney, while Essential distributes to the rest of NSW, including the Bulahdelah, Dungog and Gloucester areas.
In NSW upper house budget estimates hearings on Friday, Energy Minister Matt Kean was questioned by Labor MLC and energy spokesperson Adam Searle, who said afterwards that Ausgrid had struggled for weeks to reconnect tens of thousands of homes that had lost their power during the storms because it lacked the skilled personnel to undertake crucial repairs.
When the numbers of managers and the amount they are paid rises so rapidly in just a handful of years, it says there is something seriously out of whack.Justin Page, Electrical Trades Union NSW secretary
On Monday night, Mr Kean described Labor's questions as part of a "campaign to help out their union mates and push up power bills".
Mr Kean said Ausgrid was fully compliant with minimum employment guarantees as monitored by the NSW Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal (IPART).
"I fully expect Ausgrid to have enough staff to restore power after storms as quickly as possible and at the lowest cost to consumers," Mr Kean said.
"That's why the Australian Energy Regulator is in charge of balancing the resourcing needs of Ausgrid against consumers costs."
But Electrical Trades Union NSW secretary Justin Page said the three distributors had slashed more than 5000 jobs from their workforces in the past half-decade.
"And as if those cuts weren't enough, they are all foreshadowing further job cuts that are likely to total another 1300 positions in the next three years," Mr Page said.
"Their response to the storms shows how under resourced they are, to the point where they were wanting to call in the army to get their work done."
Mr Page said that even with "job sharing arrangements" between the three distributors, they were not able to keep their networks running in the way they previously did during storms and fires.
He said a big problem during the storms was a shortage of workers to remove fallen trees and other vegetation from the network.
He said "a secondary problem" with the distributors was the "mish-mash of regulation" between the state and federal governments, as the previously state based electricity grids were merged into a "national" grid of South Australia, Victoria, NSW and Queensland.
The amounts that networks could charge was now set by a national body, the Australian Energy Regulator, but the NSW body, IPART, still had a role to play overseeing aspects of their operations.
"Part of the problem lies with the Australian Energy Regulator (AER) imposing a financial regime that has gone from what was criticised as 'gold plated' to what we would say is decimated," Mr Page said.
He said the union had warned the AER in 2015 and again last year that they needed to take account of the growing likelihood of blackouts and network damage caused by increasingly hostile weather related to climate change.
"In both 2015 and 2019, the AER's determinations have significantly cut the capital expenditure and operating budgets of the distributors," Mr Page said.
"The distribution and transmission industry has lost 5000 workers since 2015 and as a result of the 2019 determination we are set to lose 1300 more by 2023, with Ausgrid and Essential planning to cut by 500 each and Endeavour another 300.
To back its arguments of excessive job cuts, Labor used internal Ausgrid documents that showed a "total headcount" of 3228 in November last year (including "ongoing and temporary/project roles" and labour hire), which was "well below" the 3570 required by IPART.
But Ausgrid responded by saying it had the equivalent of 3950 employees at the end of last year.
"This includes direct employees, labour hire and compliant contractors, in line with the definition contained in legislation and referred to by IPART and is 380 full-time-equivalent positions above the level required," Ausgrid said.
Mr Page said the big workforce cuts were at odds with the situation at the top end, where management numbers were growing noticeably as set out in annual reports.
At Essential Energy, the number of managers on Senior Executive Service or SES bands salaries stood at 156 according to the 2018-19 annual report, compared with 112 positions in 2010-11, its first annual report of the present Coalition government era.
"Essential Energy repeatedly claim their hands are tied, that these job cuts have been forced on them, yet the continued growth in the number of senior managers and how much they are being paid shows the pain of job cuts has been disproportionately felt by front-line workers," Mr Page said.
"When the numbers of managers and the amount they are paid rises so rapidly in just a handful of years, it says there is something seriously out of whack."
While you're with us, did you know the Newcastle Herald offers breaking news alerts, daily email newsletters and more? Keep up to date with all the local news - sign up here
IN NEWS TODAY
- Saving Lawson, part 3: 'It's going to be a long road ahead but I have come so far'
- Hunter patient in his 70s being treated for Coronavirus
- Appeal for information following suspicious Central Coast house fire
- Kalyn Ponga says he wants to play 300 games and win a grand final with the Knights
- Scrubba Body leaves home for retail space