Following News10NBC investigation, state regulators expand probe into RG&E and NYSEG

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Update:  (1/9/23) – In a press release, RG&E says it is continuing to work on its customer service problems.  In 2022, it added 100 customer service representatives and hopes to add another 100 in 2023.  The utility says it has also added 40 billing specialists that it hopes will help reduce wait-times on its customer service lines.  The President of RG&E says it has also made significant progress in reducing the backlog of new construction and upgrade jobs, from four to five months to completion in July 2022, to four weeks or less at the end of November. 

ROCHESTER, N.Y. – Following a months-long News10NBC investigation into serious billing and customer service issues at RG&E, the New York State Public Service Commission announced Wednesday it is widening its own investigation into the utility. 

The department launched an investigation into potential mismanagement RG&E and NYSEG’s billing systems and protocols earlier this year.  Last month, the PSC’s consumer advocate, Richard Berkley, told News10NBC Investigative Reporter Jennifer Lewke he would come to Rochester to talk with impacted customers directly and now, he’s planning to do just that.  As part of the investigation, Berkley will host a series of public forums in affected areas starting in January.

News10NBC has taken hundreds of complaints from customers over the past several months ranging from sky-high bills that were inaccurate, customers going months without a bill, homeowners being threatened with fees or shut-offs for inspections they didn’t even know were necessary, and many waiting hours on hold to try and get through to anyone at customer service. 

RG&E has acknowledged a serious staffing shortage.  In most cases, when News10NBC passed along the name, address and account numbers of impacted customers directly, the utility was able to contact them and correct the problem but we also suggested those customers file a complaint with the PSC. 

In 2022, the PSC says the number of consumer complaints against RG&E and NYSEG soared to more than 4,700, which is 60% higher than the two previous years combined.  

In an exclusive interview with News10NBC Investigative Reporter Jennifer Lewke, the president and CEO of RG&E and NYSEG said it is still in the middle of the storm when it comes to the staffing crisis but is working to recruit and hire. 

Trish Nilsen – “We are still in a storm, I will say that it’s going to take us a while to get out however for the more than 750 people strong we are and Rochester, we’ve added to that group.  Our call center in Rochester is up 140 people, we’re still looking for 40 more and we’ve added 40 billing specialists.”

Jennifer Lewke – “How long until you think these new employees can have an impact on the day-to-day operations?”

Trish Nilsen – “I think they’re having an impact every day just from a morale perspective because it’s been a challenge for our people to not feel that we’re doing our best and serving our customers.  Those new people coming on the property has been a great morale boost for us, they’re on the phones within the first couple of weeks of their training and they’re able to take some basic calls to start.   The challenge areas, high bill complaints, new service construction, that’s going to take them closer to about a year to a year plus to be able to do.”

Jennifer Lewke – “How are you evolving with what the demands of the employees are these days in order to get more people interested in working for you?”

Trish Nilsen – “I’m glad you brought that up Jennifer because we have changed the way that we’re hiring and staffing.  It’s a hybrid approach. So, while we’ve kept our call-center here in Rochester and we have people here in the office, we are also offering customer service position and a hybrid work from home approach.  The great thing with that is during storm, it’ll mean they can roll out of bed sit in their jammies, answer the phone immediately and be there for our customers: 24/7/365.”

Jennifer Lewke – “Have you all been able to audit the billing system to ensure its accuracy? Because we’re still hearing from so many people who have waited months for bills and then get giant bills and while the commodity price, we know is high they don’t trust what they’re seeing. So, what have you done to ensure that they can’t trust their bills?”

Trish Nilsen – “Well, first of all, people should be able to trust RG&E these are your friends and your neighbors…it upsets us to think that somebody feels that we are untrustworthy because that’s not how we are.  Our billing system that we put in Labor Day weekend is a two-step process.  We had to put the new system in and then we have programmers that are working on how to take those manual bills that we’ve been issuing and automate them.  If customers suspect something is wrong with their bill, they can call or email us and we’ll look into it.”

Jennifer Lewke – “So many of them (customers) say, ‘Listen CEO, I’m trying to call your company… I’m calling hour after hour, day after day and I simply can’t get through.’ How do you expect them to contact you if you’re still in the storm of this customer service issue?”

Trish Nilsen – “We’ve improved our average speed of answer at our call center, it’s not where we want it to be in terms of pre-pandemic levels but it’s 64% better since October.”

Jennifer Lewke – “You decided not to charge anyone late fees during the winter, claiming the cost of the commodity is high and you’re trying to help.  I think a lot of people thought well, that’s great but is it because of that or is it because you can’t guarantee that the bills are accurate? Did you get that kind of feedback from customers and how would you answer that?”

Trish Nilsen – “It is a two-part two thing. One, we recognize that there is an increase in supply prices that’s creating a pinch-point for our customers but it also is a pledge. We’re not getting our bills as timely as we’d like, we’ve had some customer service challenges and since we’re having challenges I think as a group we all decided we needed to do something to show good faith. To say to our customers we recognize your having frustrations with us, we need to do better and this was one way we could do that.”

Jennifer Lewke – “In the midst of all this, you’re still asking the Public Service Commission to approve a rate increase. Have these things caused you at all to say, let me take a step back here and see if there’s some middle ground?”

Trish Nilsen – “When we go through a case there’s two ways we can do it and we’ve chosen with the Public Service Commission and the various parties that are participating in the rate-case to make it a collaborative process which really means a lot of listening in back-and-forth. We are at the table doing a listening process and going back-and-forth and there definitely is some give-and-take as part of that.”

Jennifer Lewke –  “What do you want your customers to know?”

Trish Nilsen – “We take their critiques, we take their criticism, we’re looking to improve and we are using their feedback to make our systems and our service better.”

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