*Originally published in the Appalachian News-Express*
By Buddy Forbes
Kentucky Power is speaking out, following a protest by Asplundh workers outside of the American Electric Power Service Center in Coal Run Tuesday morning.
Tree trimmers who work for the Asplundh Tree Experts joined outside of American Electric Power (AEP) with signs and flyers, and said they hoped to be heard by the power megastructure. AEP contracts its vegetation services to three separate companies, one of which is Asplundh. Workers who attended the protest claim that Asplundh and AEP are treating the contracted workers unfairly.
Kentucky Power Corporate Communications Manager Allison Barker said the workers are misplacing their anger.
“We spend $27 million a year on vegetation management. We have three contractors that work for us. Asplundh is one of them. We put a contract out for competitive bid and we accept those bids,” said Barker. “We don’t tell Asplundh how to pay or what to pay their employees. That’s between the union and Asplundh. All we do is put out a request for a competitive bid, like almost any other business who works with a vendor would. So, this flyer contains a lot of falsehoods. It just isn’t true.”
The flyer which was being handed out during the protest said, “according to AEP line clearance contractor (Asplundh), AEP doesn’t want these Kentucky residents/workers to” have medical benefits, sick days, competitive wages, travel compensation, retirement, or proper training. Barker said this is just a shift of blame onto AEP.
“Of course we want employees to have medical benefits. But that is an issue the union has with Asplunsh. We don’t pay a vendor’s employees, nor do we tell a vendor what to pay employees. All we do is put a contract out for bid and look at those bids and award a contract,” said Barker. “I understand that we’re an easy target, but it’s unfortunate because it doesn’t really have anything to do with us.”
According to Barker, the concerns at hand are all in the relationship between Asplundh and the union, not with AEP.
“All of these issues are employment issues that they need to take up with Asplundh,” said Barker. “This would be like if you were unhappy with McDonald’s and you went and protested in front of the uniform maker.”
The protesting Asplundh workers claimed unsafe work conditions, which have taken the lives of four employees in the last two years. According to Barker, that is also an Asplundh issue unrelated to AEP.
“They do their own safety training. We don’t train their employees. We have safety guidelines that we expect them to meet, but we don’t train their workers,” said Barker.
Barker said the recent protest comes in possible relation to Asplundh’s contract coming up for renewal next year.
“AEP’s contract with Asplundh is up for renewal next year and that is largely why this is happening now,” said Barker. “Oftentimes, when a contract is up for renewal … these kinds of labor issues can surface at that time. And I think that’s what happened here.”
Barker said that in bidding these jobs, it’s all about the dollar sign.
“We spend $27 million on vegetation management each year; that’s what’s important to us. We want to get the best price we can, which helps keep our prices lower, which comes back to the customer; that’s our goal,” Barker said.
With a five-year plan in place, Barker said AEP is ahead of schedule and saving money based on the current work that’s being contracted through Asplundh, Wright Tree Service and Nelson Tree Service.
“We want to keep vegetation under control. That’s why we’re working towards a five-year cycle that will do that. We’re actually ahead of schedule on that,” said Barker. “We started it a few years ago to try to stick to a five-year schedule and we’re close to that. It’s why, in the rate case, we’re proposing giving back $6.5 million because we’re ahead of schedule.”
Barker said she is confident that this protest is in no way related to the recent proposed rate hike.
“This contract would be up for renewal next year no matter what. They’re totally unrelated,” Barker said.