The man sauntered over to Leroy Amick’s table at Bellacino’s in Lexington and slapped down a copy of the newspaper, asking if the 61-year-old SCE&G lineman wanted to read “this bull----.”
The man motioned to a front-page headline about SCE&G’s now-infamous decision to abandon its heralded twin nuclear-reactor construction project after 10 years and $1.8 billion charged to customers.
“I told him I didn’t like it either, but there wasn’t anything I could do or you could do about it,” said Amick, who has spent the past 39 years fixing power lines in Lexington County for the Cayce-based utility.
In the four months since SCE&G’s announcement, the utility’s linemen have been heckled from passing cars and seen plenty of middle fingers. The company’s customer service specialists have fielded calls from customers asking about refunds for the $27 a month they are being billed for the unfinished reactors. And the employees who run SCE&G’s philanthropic efforts have had to field questions about whether the utility will be around to continuing sponsoring charitable programs.
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And if public scorn wasn’t enough, the utility’s plummeting stock price has cost its employees hundreds of millions of dollars, collectively.
“You don’t have to talk with them more than five or 10 minutes to get a sense of their frustration,” said state Rep. Russell Ott, D- Calhoun, who says he has heard from a half-dozen SCE&G employees he knows personally. “They feel they are being judged personally for what is taking place. They are concerned about their futures and their families’ futures.”
‘Frustrated and aggravated’
The linemen who work out of SCE&G’s Lexington crew quarters pass around a copy of The State newspaper most mornings.
They banter over the latest headlines on the nuclear fiasco, and vent about the direction of news coverage and the tough stances state politicians have taken concerning their company.
When they leave the office to install or repair power lines, take lunch breaks or go to their churches and social groups, they face questions and snide remarks about a nuclear debacle they played no part in.
“They’re frustrated and aggravated, I guess,” Amick said, referring to the questioners. “I would never get into a confrontation over that. You’ve got to ignore that and move on. They’ll be your best friend when they’re sitting in the dark.”
Employees in other SCE&G departments hear about the reactors, too.
Every so often, a customer calls in thinking a spike in his or her electricity bill stems from SCE&G’s botched effort to build the twin reactors in Fairfield County, said Ginger Greenway, a 20-year company veteran who manages a team of employees who help customers save energy. Typically, those spikes are related to other factors, such as a hot water heater set at the wrong temperature or a lack of insulation to trap heat, Greenway said.
Victoria Glover, the lead customer service specialist for SCE&G’s Flora Street business office, says she hears about once a week from customers asking about refunds for what they have been charged for the reactors.
And Stephanie Jones, who coordinates SCE&G’s philanthropic efforts, says the nonprofits she works with have started asking whether the company – in danger of bankruptcy or a takeover by one of several out-of-state utilities – will be around to partner with in the future.
Recently, the association for South Carolina’s private colleges asked whether SCE&G could continue its 62-year sponsorship of scholarships for two students at each college in the company’s service area.
SCE&G plans to.
But it is difficult to hear doubts from long-time partners, Jones said.
“I certainly hope we’ll be able to do that,” she said. “But, honestly, I’m not sure right now.”
‘It appalls me’
That uncertainty is pervasive.
The stock price of SCANA, SCE&G’s parent company, is featured prominently on SCE&G’s internal home page, offering the utility’s employees a daily glance at what they have lost to the nuclear fiasco.
SCE&G employees and retirees owned at least 9 percent of all SCANA stock at the end of last December – when those shares were worth $940 million, collectively.
Since then, SCANA’s stock price has plummeted to the mid-$40s from $73.28, meaning those same shares have lost roughly $380 million in value.
That precipitous drop has affected the Lexington linemen, some of whose stock portfolios were 100 percent invested in SCANA.
SCANA stock accounts for about half of Amick’s retirement plans.
“I had the choice of getting out of that when it was at an all-time high, and I didn’t, so I messed up myself, I reckon,” said Amick, one of SCE&G’s oldest linemen.
State Rep. Kirkman Finlay, R-Richland, called it “incredibly unfortunate” that everyday employees have suffered financially while top SCANA executives have taken home millions of dollars in bonuses.
“It appalls me, the logic of it, that people who have worked so hard are paying for the mistakes of management,” Finlay said.
‘Taking care of our customers’
Four months of turmoil have left employees anxious and frustrated, they say.
Linemen have used humor as a bandage. Amick jokes to his crew not to jump off a bridge, and has quipped that linemen working along roads should watch out for angry drivers who might see the SCE&G logo as a bull’s eye.
SCE&G employees say they are trying to stay focused on their jobs, even as the company they have invested their lives and money in is dragged through the mud.
“It’s hard to see negative news and negative feedback every day,” said Jones, the philanthropy coordinator. “It’s hard to see that. But I also know that I work with some of the best people that I’ve ever met.”
Greenway said her team is just as disappointed as customers.
“It is harder right now, and it’s harder morale-wise. I’m trying, with my team, just to keep us focused on taking care of our customers.”
Not all the feedback is negative, though.
Family and friends have offered support – some just as simple as acknowledging the rank-and-file employees aren’t to blame for the V.C. Summer debacle or the resulting higher electricity bills.
A week ago, during a party for the Carolina-Clemson football game, Amick’s friends jokingly asked him if he had brought their $5 – referencing SCE&G’s much-maligned proposal to reduce what it is charging customers for the nuclear project to $22 a month from $27.
Amick replied he already had spent it.
SCE&G employees also cling to faith that a change in leadership – chief executive Kevin Marsh and chief operating officer Stephen Byrne will retire at year’s end – will help turn things around.
And they are optimistic that SCANA’s stock price will rebound, even as state lawmakers push proposals that would block SCE&G from charging its customers any more for the failed nuclear project.
Having grown up on a dairy farm, Amick says he can’t cry over the spilled milk of his stock portfolio.
“I hope I live long enough to see it all come back.”