Testimony at a legislative hearing Feb. 14 in Lincoln offered a sobering look at what dangers face utility workers each day on the job.
And that’s not taking into consideration working up high on the lines with energized equipment or facing the elements at all hours of the day.
These are the everyday dangers of dealing with the general public.
Utility workers have had machetes waved at them, guns pulled on them, threats of physical harm and intimidation. Even call center workers aren’t immune from threats and abuse.
Representatives of OPPD, Black Hills Energy and the Nebraska Rural Electric Association all testified to the Judiciary Committee in favor of LB763, a bill that would prohibit obstruction of a public power district employee while doing his or her job. It would make that offense a Class 1 misdemeanor punishable by up to one year imprisonment and $1,000 fine.
Tom Richards, manager of Governmental & Community Affairs for OPPD, said the bill would provide needed protection for utility workers and is a matter of safety for those in the field.
“Employees can also encounter customers who are angry about a disconnection, wary of the utility’s motives or generally resistant to completion of the work,” Richards said. “There are times when these encounters involve outbursts of intimidation and threats. It is unfortunate, but it is also a reality.”
An opponent to the bill, Spike Eickholt of the Nebraska Criminal Defense Attorneys Association, said such actions are already prohibited by existing laws and worries that doing so would be a first step in designating a new class of victim. Whenever that happens, the tendency is to increase the penalty for that designated class, he said.
The bill is needed, Richards said, because it isn’t commonly known among prosecutors and law enforcement that work done by OPPD crews is considered governmental operations. Also, some workers aren’t protected under existing laws. LB763 would change that and protect those workers, as well.
“This was brought to my attention by OPPD,” said Sen. Burke Harr, of Omaha. “Workers in the field face disgruntled members of the public. This is about the safety of these workers.”
Richards called the bill a “middle-of-the-road approach to protect employees.”
Sen. Steve Halloran of Hastings said, “I’m forever in awe of what you people do when my power is out and just want you to get my power on.”
No action was taken on the bill. The bill will now either proceed out of committee to be considered by the entire Legislature to debate and vote or it can be tabled to be considered during the next session.