Low pay and training requirements are a driving force behind high turnover and vacancy rates at the Public Service Commission’s utility division and transportation division, according to an audit presented to the Post-Audit subcommittee at the Capitol on Tuesday.
The audit analyzed staffing levels in those two divisions from 2014-2018, finding that vacancies and turnovers were mostly in three, specific positions — utility analysts, utility inspectors and enforcement officers — within the two divisions.
This means consistently more work for remaining employees, as well as the risk that West Virginia consumers are not receiving the most efficient services from the agency, which regulates all utilities operating in the state, Nick Hamilton, senior auditor, told committee members.
“There is a direct correlation between staffing issues and the PSC’s ability to meet its statutorily mandated requirements,” Hamilton said.
Annually, turnover rates were consistently more than 10 percent in both the divisions until 2018, when the PSC entered a general order — based on its own internal investigation on staffing problems — to raise salaries. Vacancy rates rose from about 10 percent in the utility division in 2014 to 29 percent in 2018, and from 34 percent for the transportation division to 44 percent within the same time period.
Utility inspectors and enforcement officers in the transportation division are tasked with ensuring commercial trucks and other heavy-duty motorists are complying with rules when traveling in West Virginia, meaning they are meeting safety standards (like having fully inspected, safe vehicles) as well as meeting requirements, like size and weight limits, on the state’s roads.
Throughout the years studied in the audit, the number of inspections performed by the transportation division cut nearly in half — from 30,873 in 2014 to 17,218 in 2018.
Despite this drop in inspections, Bob Blankenship, head of the PSC’s transportation division, said there has not been an increase in accidents or incidents involving vehicles that should be inspected.
“The thing about highway safety — you’ll get years where there’s a spike [in safety incidents], and years where they’re down,” Blankenship said.
For the utility division, where utility analysts are responsible for auditing a utility’s operations when it applies for a rate increase, a tariff case or requests assistance, the staffing problems have lead to an increased caseload for remaining employees, who are also tasked with sorting through formal and informal complaints filed to the agency from consumers.
In 2014, each utility analyst dealt with about 34 cases annually, and 220 complaints. In 2018, a utility analyst dealt with about 50 cases each, and 313 complaints — a “significant increase,” per the report.
Utility analysts and most of the employees dealing with the burden of increased workloads at the PSC do not get paid overtime, instead they work extra, late hours, unpaid.
They also do not have the option to fall behind on cases: there are time limits mandated by state code for responses to every type of complaint, request or case that is filed with the PSC. Jessica Lane, general counsel with the PSC, said that despite the staffing challenges at the agency, no deadlines had been missed for utility cases.
The auditor’s report recommended that the PSC implement a strategic workforce plan, using past trends in employment to forecast future issues, with a heavy focus on retention — “the most cost effective” way to battle staffing shortages.
Lane noted that, while just this month the PSC will lose a number of its most seasoned, senior officials (in addition to PSC chairman Michael Albert leaving office in July, several other officers will retire this month) the agency already follows several of these practices — exit interviews for departing employees, for example — and is in the process of implementing more.
It plans on entering another general order in the near future to raise salaries again in an attempt to remain competitive with comparable, higher paying jobs in other sectors, Lane said.
Staffing issues, historically, have been an issue for the PSC, Lane said, but those at the agency are “committed to assuring that customers” are receiving the best possible service from their utilities.