A few weeks ago I got a letter from Con Edison. ConEd provides gas to over a million customers in NYC. I’m one of them. They have $62 billion in assets and are one of the largest gas distribution companies in the US.
My apartment has a gas meter in the kitchen. Up until a few years ago, a ConEd meter reader came by monthly to record my usage. ConEd swapped this meter out for a smart meter. It meant no more visits.
The letter they sent began, “We’re asking for your help.” It went on to say that ConEd needed to inspect my smart meter. I was to call the number provided and set up an appointment. The letter noted it was the second inspection request sent to me. If I didn’t arrange an inspection by September 10 I’d be fined $100. And, I would run the risk of having my gas turned off.
I couldn’t remember receiving the first letter, but I called the number to arrange an appointment. I was put on hold by a bot, and remained on hold for over 20 minutes until the bot hit a glitch and hung up on me. I called back and got a different recording where a bot suggested I leave a call back number. My call would be returned within 48 hours. I left my number but never heard back.
The next day I tried the number again. This time the bot gave an email address and suggested I email ConEd to request an inspection. I did this and never got a reply.
A day or two later I called back and got caught in a bot loop that insisted I leave a call back number, but never gave me an option to. I called back, a bot put me on hold, and after 30 minutes of a nonstop recording requesting I leave a call back I hung up.
I went online to see if there was another number connected to ‘gas inspection’ or ‘meter reading.’ There wasn’t, but what I did find were pending lawsuits against ConEd that were connected to this letter. Law firms stated their clients were being fined $100 monthly, they never received a first letter, etc.
There was a general number for ConEd online and I eventually got through to a nice rep. She couldn’t help me since gas inspections were a different department, but she passed my information to a supervisor in gas inspections and said I’d hear back by end of day. The supervisor never called.
I went back online, tried different variations of ‘ConEd gas inspections,’ and a link came up for DPS Office of Consumer Services, a gov’t agency. Maybe filing a complaint would get my phone call or email returned. It wasn’t about the fine or ConEd’s threat to turn off my gas. It was, I had done everything and more that ConEd asked from me to resolve this problem. Yet the lone option ConEd gave to fix this didn’t work. I filed, and quickly got a response from DPS stating my complaint was forwarded to ConEd. The speed of this suggested I wasn’t the first person to file.
After two more days of silence I shared my frustration with a close friend. She knew an exec who once worked for ConEd. The person she knew emailed me and requested a copy of the ConEd letter. I sent it, and when this person tried to call the number — twice — they had the same experience I had. They must have made some calls, and soon after I heard from ConEd’s Customer Service.
The woman I spoke with was knowledgable, kind, and efficient. She said the phone number created an overwhelming amount of calls and they didn’t have enough reps to handle the volume. When I asked if I could have expected a call back, she got quiet. I told her I tried to reach ConEd through the general number, but was told the phone number in the letter was the only way to schedule an inspection. I had tried every option — email, call back, sitting on hold for 30 minutes and there was no way through. She murmured understanding. The chance of getting anyone on the phone to schedule an inspection was nil, if not impossible. ConEd had to be aware of this. Were they doing anything to remedy it? She murmured more understanding.
The first appointment she could give me was November. But the letter stated that an inspection needed to happen by September 10 or I’d be fined. I asked, “Would I still be fined?” She couldn’t promise I wouldn’t be charged. If I was, all I had to do was call and the charge would be taken off my bill. “Did I have to call the same number in that letter?” I did. She quickly emailed me her personal phone number in case I got charged.
The following day a senior ConEd customer service rep called about my complaint lodged with the DPS. He was empathetic. He said that the letter I received misstated a prior letter had been sent. This was the first letter sent and he apologized for the misinformation. I asked how many complaints were filed through DSA. 4000. I asked how many ConEd customers got the letter. He said all of them. (ConEd has over a million users in Manhattan, which is only one of five boroughs. I don’t know how many smart meters there are.)
He said the office was trying to get back to customers but it was going slowly. “What if someone didn’t work for themselves like I do, and didn’t have time to deal with this?”
“I know,” the rep said, understanding.
“So there’s basically no way to get in touch with ConEd about this.” The rep was empathetic. “The letter threatens to turn gas off. I don’t know how many buildings are heated with gas, but it would mean no heat for these customers. NYC winters are frigid. And, stoves are gas, so it would mean no cooking.” I know. “What if a customer has young kids? What if they can’t afford to eat out? Will ConEd turn off the gas if someone can’t get through on that number, the only number provided?”
“Yes, they probably will,” the rep replied.
A customer can’t quit ConEd. There might be one other option for gas and electric, but they use ConEd gas lines. I only solved this because I had a personal contact. Without one, there’s no workaround.
Years ago I worked for People Magazine in ad production. We received an ad from a brand that wanted to advertise a new product. The brand would run this ad across the country, except for the St. Louis metro area. The brand wanted to test their new product in the St. Louis area only. This version of the ad had special copy, a phone number a reader could call to get a free sample. But what happened was, the national ad ran in St. Louis and the number offering a free sample ran everywhere else. People Magazine had to hire hundreds of operators to deal with this. I don’t know how the financial costs were remedied, but People must have done the right thing because they didn’t lose that advertiser.
I understand corporations exist to make money. But what ConEd is doing isn’t your basic greed or malfeasance. It feels much worse. Friends in lofts that would sell for millions have smart meters in their kitchens, so I can’t say if ConEd’s lack of action is socio-economically motivated. But I keep asking myself why I’m so bothered by this. This morning, it hit me: The recent indictments of Trump and Republicans has yet again illuminated behavior that has spread since 2016: take zero responsibility with actions that cause harm, and practice a voracious right to ignore accountability. With ConEd, I didn’t experience the avid righteousness that Trump and his fellow Republicans spew when their choices benefit only their needs. Every employee I spoke with shared a sense of powerlessness over being able to take any actions to change this. But ConEd represents security, conscientiousness, they’re a company that has withstood time and change. I need reminders of these qualities to see that all is not bad in the world, that a population both corporate and private can still be depended upon. I can’t bear another crack in this, and ConEd has created one.
On Saturday I was getting ready to upload this post and my phone chimed with a voice message. My phone hadn’t rung; it was one of those callbacks you can leave when you don’t want to speak with the person who called or don’t have time to. The message was from a ConEd rep calling to arrange an inspection. He left me a number to call, the same number in the letter. I called, hoping to see this black hole was resolved. I got a message saying the office was closed and to call back on Monday. I tried, but never got through.