Utilities should learn from 2011
One of the biggest stories of 2011 was the weather.
Mother Nature pounded Pennsylvania with hurricanes, tornadoes, historic rainfalls and early snowstorms.
The result was much destruction and unprecedented electricity outages.
Going without power is uncommon in modern America, especially for three, four, five or more days at a time, as some in the midstate found themselves.
People were left in the dark, literally and figuratively, as they found it frustrating dealing with electric companies to get reliable information on when their power might come back on.
It's clear that so many powerful storms in one year is unusual, but it's also clear that electricity (and other utility) customers deserve better.
As this newspaper reported, some customers were informed their power would be back on within hours and then it wasn't. Others were told it would be days only to have it back on within hours. It's difficult for a family to make decisions about what to do - whether to seek other shelter, throw out food, etc., without reliable information.
Another communication mix-up was whether families without power for multiple days could get water and ice paid by the utility companies and which local stores were participating in that arrangement.
Most of the electric companies are voluntarily making upgrades.
As PPL Electric Utilities President David DeCampli said, "We are accountable to our customers and regulators to perform well even under the most difficult circumstances."
PPL has increased its telephone line capacity by 20 percent, expanded its number of customer service representatives, looked at how to use social media technology more effectively and hired a backup provider for emergencies.
It also is looking at how it can provide more-accurate estimates of electricity restoration times.
These are all welcome improvements that should make the next unusual and unexpected storms in the state easier to navigate.
The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, which regulates utilities, also did a thorough analysis of what triggered the extended outages, how quickly they were restored and how companies dealt with it.
The PUC's main finding is that communication with customers was an "ongoing issue."
While the PUC gathered extensive and important data, the PUC board has not been as proactive at insisting on reforms.
It sent out a list of "best practices" and recommendations, but there's no real bite to them if companies do not follow those recommendations.
One of the most basic recommendations - setting up Twitter and Facebook updates, for example, should not take months.
The PUC's "best practices" list should become the "expected practices" list after a certain reasonable amount of time for companies to make upgrades.
While we all hope 2011 goes down in the history books as an anomaly for the number and severity of storms, utilities and the PUC must plan as if 2011 is the new norm.
- The Patriot-News of Harrisburg
A break for E-ZPass
Another year, another raid on the pocketbook. But the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission's 10 percent fare rise on most of the state's toll roads, which will take effect Jan. 1, comes with a break for those who don't literally dip into their pocketbooks.
It's only the cash fares that are going up - those drivers who have signed up for E-ZPass won't have to pay the increase.
Cash-loving drivers of passenger vehicles will pay $30.80 to travel west the entire length of the turnpike and $35.55 to go east. That compares with E-ZPass customers who pay $26.19 westbound and $30.17 to go east.
Now there's an incentive to sign up for an electronic transponder that can deduct fares automatically, the method which more than 60 percent of turnpike users have chosen to embrace. Still, it's a wonder that more drivers don't choose to drive on easy street. Maybe they refuse savings in order to have fascinating conversations with toll booth attendants.
The only toll road in Pennsylvania that won't see a change is the Findlay Connector in Allegheny and Washington counties. For all other drivers on toll roads, it's a new year, a new chance not to waste money. E-ZPass is available online at www.paturnpike.com or by calling 1-877-Penn-Pass (1-877-736-6727).
- Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Not good for kids or country
Newt Gingrich called existing child labor laws "truly stupid" during a speech at Harvard University. Then, during a Republican presidential debate in Iowa, the former House Speaker and current candidate suggested low-income children should take jobs at their schools.
For instance, he said, poor kids might replace the janitorial staff.
"I'll stand by the idea young people ought to learn how to work," Gingrich said. "Middle-class kids do it routinely. We should give poor kids the same chance to pursue happiness."
Pursue happiness? By spending several hours a week scrubbing toilets instead of studying science? By mopping hallways instead of doing math homework?
There is little question that work instills values and teaches lessons no books - let alone TV shows or video games - ever could. Few would argue that children, some more than others, couldn't benefit from the right sort of work under the right sort of conditions and with the right sort of time restrictions.
In fact, abundant data supports Gingrich's assertion that work builds character for kids, that developing a work ethic while young provides a variety of professional and personal lifetime benefits.
But existing child labor laws hardly prohibit work, particularly for teenagers. Nor do they prevent parents from instilling the aforementioned work ethic by assigning regular household chores.
The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 was born of profound reason: to stop decades-long workplace abuse of children, who provided cheap labor and who often exchanged their educations for their small paychecks and their futures for their employers' profit margins.
The law sets 14 as a minimum age for most work and 18 as the minimum for most hazardous jobs. Various exceptions relate to family businesses and agriculture.
There are no justifiable reasons to fiddle with this long-standing law's main tenets. If anything there are compelling arguments to maintain restrictions on child labor: So many American adults are out of work and anxious to find jobs, and so many children are vulnerable to the twin perils of poverty and poor educations.
Allowing teens to work at a lower-than-minimum wage, as Maine now does under its newly relaxed law, might offer more profits and less paperwork for businesses. But it certainly does nothing to encourage hiring full-wage adults.
Allowing teens to work more hours, as Wisconsin does under its new law, might help establish a stronger work ethic for those teens, but it hardly will compensate the children for the reported $1.6 billion Wisconsin has slashed from its education budget.
Also, Gingrich's premise that low-income children lack hardworking role models, a premise upon which he's apparently built this child-labor proposal, flies in the face of facts. According to the U.S. Census, there were 9.9 million single-mother households with children under 18 in 2010; more than 65 percent of those mothers had jobs.
And we've not even touched upon the janitors and other employees Gingrich's working children would displace. We want to shorten unemployment lines, not lengthen them. Wouldn't that help the economy and lower governmental costs?
Work almost certainly builds character at any age. But relaxing child labor laws won't build low-income children's futures any more than it will fix any of our country's biggest problems.
- Reading Eagle