Polled employees say company is still 'a great place to work'

To Portland General Electric lineman Dave Covington, the almost $1 million in retention bonuses given out to the company's top five executives in 2002 is 'a slap in the face to ratepayers.'

'Here they are swallowing all these higher rates, but how these executives feel they deserve these bonuses is beyond me,' says the lineman, a frequent critic of PGE management.

Roy Rinard, however, says he doesn't begrudge Chief Executive Officer Peggy Fowler her $475,000 bonus, even though it's almost equal to the 401(k) retirement savings he accumulated over 22 years and lost in Enron stock.

'I think she's doing a great job holding the company together,' says the veteran journeyman lineman. 'We're basically treading water until the next owner takes over. She and everyone else are trying to keep PGE functioning.'

The bonuses, revealed in the company's annual report two weeks ago, sparked a new volley of criticism from both PGE employees and customers.

Fowler sent a voicemail to employees that explained the bonuses, dating to 1997, as a competitive tool for retaining executives. 'I guess it must be working because I am still here working through the challenges,' she said in the message.

She later met to reassure indignant employees, the third fire she'd put out in the last month.

The Tribune reported last February that PGE had not paid any state taxes, prompting Sens. Ryan Deckert, D-Beaverton, and Rick Metsger, D-Welches, last week to file legislation closing the $10 minimum tax loophole. Last Tuesday, state regulators called for a formal probe into PGE's past trading practices.

Despite the string of controversies, a company survey released last month showed that most employees are satisfied with their jobs at PGE but are concerned about the company's future ownership.

Poll results

The 400 employees polled Ñ out of PGE's 2,800 Ñ gave the company high marks for safety, diversity, community involvement and commitment to quality. Lowest marks were for the ability to advance, job security and unnecessary stress.

With sale of the company hanging over their heads, 58 percent of PGE employees polled said they were concerned about job security and ownership.

'It's not surprising that people want to know what's in our future,' says Arleen Barnett, PGE's vice president of human resources and information technology. 'That's something we'd all like.'

What Barnett found surprising was how little change there was in the survey results compared to last year.

'It was an amazingly challenging year, and we expected some scoring change,' she says.

The two-year-old bankruptcy of its parent company, Enron Corp., emerging criminal charges against former Enron employees, and investigation of Enron and PGE's energy trading by federal and state regulators have dented employee morale, says Michael Schlenker, a journeyman lineman for the last 11 years.

Enron put PGE on the sales block 17 months ago. It is weighing a prospective offer from city officials as well as overtures from private bidders.

'They've broken an unspoken trust that this is a good place to work,' Schlenker says of PGE managers. 'Owners come and go, and I want to know things are going to be OK.'

'We're acknowledging that it's been stressful with the power crisis, Enron collapse and price increases,' says PGE spokesman Scott Simms. 'All of those things take their own toll. What's crucial is, 'Are you keeping the lights on and delivering it safely despite the difficult circumstances?' '

Challenges ahead

PGE polled 600 staff members Ñ randomly chosen by computer Ñ last October, and 400 responded. A little over one-quarter were union members, such as linemen.

The annual survey Ñ launched in 2000 Ñ aims to track employee attitudes, motivation, supervision and the effectiveness of the company's organization. The survey asks employees to rank such statements as 'I see PGE as a good corporate citizen' and 'My job has unnecessary stress.'

'We want to know what employees are thinking,' Barnett says.

Nine percent of those polled cited concern about the loss of their retirement funds, most of which were invested in Enron stock that plummeted in value when the company collapsed into bankruptcy and financial scandal.

The loss of millions in 401(k) money continues to weigh on Rinard and other employees, who will have to work longer before retiring.

'I can't see how the money from the Enron debacle will ever be recuperated, but I would like for it (PGE) to move forward,' says Bob Vigil, electrical machinist foreman at the Pelton Round Butte hydro plant in Madras. 'Generally, it's a great place to work.

'There are some complaints I have, more on a personal note, not with the corporation or management. Nothing's perfect. It's been a good job for me, great living for my family and benefits.'

Technician Don Vandeventer says PGE is the best company he's ever worked for.

'We've got a good basic philosophy of treating people right,' says Vandeventer, who's worked at the Coyote Springs gas turbine plant in Boardman for the last eight years.

Other employees, such as lineman Steve Lacey, don't put a lot of stock in the company poll because they believe it doesn't accurately reflect what's happening.

'People are stressed,' he says, adding that he is more outspoken because his job is protected by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 125. 'There are a lot of little issues. Morale is É it's a struggle.'

A proposed purchase by the city would only make things worse, say Lacey and others interviewed.

Vigil, who has been with PGE for 25 years, believes that the city has 'enough trouble keeping its police officers and fire officials. I believe PGE could run the business more efficiently than the city could.'

Contact Kristina Brenneman at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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