Utility workers have become easy targets for robberies and assaults as they venture out to disconnect service, make repairs and read meters inside and outside of people’s homes. Now the crimes will mean more time, as a new Illinois state law effective Jan. 1 makes attacks on utility workers “aggravated” offenses.
Utility workers have become easy targets for robberies and assaults as they venture out to disconnect service, make repairs and read meters inside and outside of people’s homes.
Tom Perkins, a ComEd worker based in Elgin, was robbed at gunpoint during a routine job in Chicago last year.
A Peoples Gas worker reported an assault last week in Chicago, and 78 attacks on ComEd workers have been reported since 2005 in Illinois.
Now the crimes will mean more time, as a new Illinois state law effective Jan. 1 makes attacks on utility workers “aggravated” offenses. That means the offenders may be tried for a felony rather than a misdemeanor and the convictions could result in five- to 10-year jail sentences.
There have been two attacks in Rockford -- a physical assault and a verbal threat -- since 2005.
Rockford ComEd meter reader Kathy Marks said news of attacks does make her nervous, and she’s happy that the law offers more protection.
“Some people just don’t want you on their property,” said Marks, who has been with the company for 10 years. “It worries you, sure. When you read a meter inside someone’s house, you’re going into the basement or sometimes a cellar door that leads to a basement. You never know what’s going to happen.”
Rockford ComEd Spokesman Paul Callighan said the company has shared information about the law changes with local municipalities.
“Safety of employees in the field is the No. 1 concern for the company,” Callighan said. “(The attacks) have not been a systemic-type problem in the this area. Generally, people are pretty respectful.”
Perkins, a general service representative based in ComEd’s Elgin office, was robbed during broad daylight last summer. He was doing routine work on the south side of Chicago when two men stopped by to chat.
As he started to leave, one of the men drew a gun from his jacket and the other man patted down Perkins looking for money and other valuables. Perkins had made a habit of leaving his wallet in the work van, so the men left with only his work cell phone.
“Fortunately, I came out of it OK, but it does impact your family,” said Perkins, a 26-year ComEd employee. “Anytime you’re out there as a utility worker, you’re an easy target. There are too many inconspicuous places where they can sit and watch you, and they’re very good at what they do. It’s not getting better. It’s getting worse, especially the way the economy is.
“It’s one of those experiences you don’t want to ever go through and that you always think happens, but not to you.”
ComEd offers safety training for employees, and Yvonne Swieton, a meter-reading supervisor in Rockford, said she asks her employees to call and check in after they’ve returned from a call.
Perkins said the company recommends that workers don’t keep much more than $10 or $15 in their wallets when they’re on a job. And, in light of recent attacks, supervisors often call employee radios to check in during the jobs, he said.
Police escorts are necessary for ComEd visits in certain neighborhoods. Swieton has a letter she gives authorities about the company’s legal and necessary rights for the visits, and she said the new law gives them more clout.
“Our employees need the support from the state and the company, and it’s encouraging to see the changes that they’ve made,” Swieton said.
ComEd was the lead agency that lobbied for the law back in 2005 after Pennsylvania enacted a similar measure.
“The General Assembly rallied around us and saw the public need,” said Fidel Marquez, ComEd’s vice president of external affairs. “The law that passed now affords utility workers the same protection as emergency workers like firemen and paramedics.”
“It’s kind of after-the-fact protection, but we’re trying to get the word out so people will be aware of it,” Marquez said. “Maybe next time somebody will think twice before they try to attack one of our workers.”
Melissa Westphal can be reached at (815) 987-1341 or firstname.lastname@example.org.