Beginning next month, customer service calls to Southern California Gas for help with lighting pilot lights and getting their gas turned on in preparation for winter’s cold weather will begin to ramp up. Those of us dealing directly with those customers at call enters and community branch offices know the feeling of quiet desperation that customers in Southern California feel when they are told that it will take two weeks or more for gas turn-on, reconnections, high bill investigations, and there is no one to explain or help. Prompt and effective customer service for residential users of natural gas has not been a priority for SoCalGas and the California PUC in recent years. Some of those chickens have come home to roost in the Aliso Canyon customer service debacle, which has eroded public confidence in both SoCalGas and the CPUC.
Unfortunately, the PUC has recently decided to give up on long-established policy principles of customer service, aggravating rather than improving SoCalGas’ customer service challenges. About a month ago, acting on a three-year old application filed by SoCalGas, the CPUC approved closing branch offices in Santa Monica, Palm Springs, Bellflower and Monrovia, denying tens of thousands of vulnerable customers an opportunity for in-person interaction with Gas Company service representatives. In permitting the closures, the CPUC rejected the principle that each customer should have a reasonable opportunity to communicate with the utility using the mode that is best suited to him or her, including in-person service. Justifying the closure with the de minimis savings (less than a penny per month), the CPUC rejected the principle that customers with different needs may have different costs to serve. The Commission did not even determine whether customers directly impacted by the closures have public transportation options to go to other branch offices remaining open, a distance of 21 miles in the case of Palm Springs. The Commission ignored testimony about the deficiencies of the call centers and on-line customer service modes for vulnerable customers and rejected appeals to develop a comprehensive plan to provide effective communication modes that do not minimize in-person interactions.
These principles were established over twenty-five years ago in a landmark CPUC decision by the Pete Wilson-era CPUC, following a Utility Worker Union “Save Our Services” campaign led by a very young Fabian Nunez. The members of the Utility Workers Union have defended these principles in numerous cases at the CPUC over the years and have appealed this latest erosion of customer service. As the CPUC Commissioners said many years ago, closing these offices “whittles away” at the basic right of utility customers to receive an essential service. This should not be the legacy of the latest group of CPUC Commissioners. They should reconsider this decision and preserve traditional principles of customer service for our neighbors in Southern California.
By Javier A. Salas
Javier A. Salas is a Lead Customer Service Representative in the Southern California Gas Company Call Center. He is President of Local 132, Utility Workers Union of America.