The story in Alabama Living almost a year ago was a moving and colorful tribute to Garland Jones and his half-century of service to Joe Wheeler Electric Membership Corporation (EMC). But tucked into the story, close to the end, were a couple of remarkable anecdotes that spoke volumes about the co-op serviceman, his approach to his job, and the people he serves.
“The principal job of a serviceman at the co-op is to set meters and turn power on and off when needed,” said Michael Cornelison, the Trinity-based co-op’s director of communications. “One of the tougher duties is having to cut off the electric service to people who haven’t paid their bill. This unenviable aspect of the job has earned those who do it the moniker of ‘the cutoff man.’”
For Jones and the members on his route, Cornelison continued, “cutoff man” is less insult and more term of endearment. “I just love my cutoff man,” a co-op receptionist had told him earlier.
Even more surprising was the reaction of a Joe Wheeler EMC member who had promised Jones on an earlier visit that he’d cover the overdue bill.
“I watched him cut the power off to a man’s house who had told him he was going to pay,” Cornelison wrote for the co-op’s section in Alabama Living. “As we were leaving, the man came up to the truck window and apologized for him having to come back out.”
It’s a rare occurrence in a situation often so fraught that it’s considered one of the utility industry’s occupational hazards.
“He’d had some problems, and he thought he was going to be able to come up with the money,” Jones says. “So he came up to my window and apologized that I had to come back. I was nice to him, and he was nice to me, and, you know, we got it taken care of.”
Jones understands and accepts the risks of his job, where a stressed and desperate member can trigger a dangerous confrontation, but he also takes a compassionate and understanding approach to his work that blunts the threat.
For 20 years or so after he joined Joe Wheeler EMC in 1967, Jones worked first as a meter reader and then as a lineman. He’s been one of the co-op’s five cutoff men for the past 30 years.
“Most of the time, when you’ve got problems, it’s the same ones,” Jones says. “If it’s one of these people that will tell you a lie every time you talk to them, I ain’t got much patience with them. I don’t want to cut nobody off, but if they’ve lied to me, that makes it a lot easier.”
He’s also learned to spot the situations that seem likely to turn dangerous. “You can tell if they’re going to get mean with you,” Jones says. “You drive away and come back with the law.”
Those encounters are rare, though. “It’s a very small percentage that’s nasty and really crooked.”
The rest of the members he deals with are usually facing troubles beyond their control, he says.
“You can tell they haven’t got the money,” he says. “Somebody’s sick, and they haven’t been on my list before. I know they’ve been trying.”
When he’s working with a member who’s fallen on hard times, Jones also avoids pointing fingers.
“The first thing I do is let them know that anyone’s going to make mistakes. That changes their attitude more than anything,” he says. “I tell them I’ve made mistakes, and when I have, I just apologize. That’s the way I try to treat them.”
It helps that Jones knows what it’s like to not have quite enough. He started working when he was 7 years old, helping his family make ends meet by picking fruit. “I was raised with nothing,” he says. “I was very poor, so I know what it is to do without.”
Now, after three decades of working up close with members in some of their most trying times, he brings that lifetime of understanding to the job.
“Employees like Garland are an asset to the cooperative,” General Manager George Kitchens says. “He is well-liked and respected in the community and is sincerely grateful for what working for Joe Wheeler EMC has allowed him to do over the last 50 years.”
Jones says an early encounter with a member soon after he took the cutoff man job has helped shape his career.
“I had one lady tell me that all I wanted to do was cut her lights off,” he recalls. “I told her, ‘Wait a minute, ma’am, let’s figure out how to keep them on.’ And that spread all over the co-op like wildfire.
“It’s not what you do, it’s how you do it,” Jones continues. “If you give people a chance, most of them will come through. They’re our bosses. They’re the people who pay us. Why not be nice to them?”
Know someone RE Magazine could profile for our “Front Lines” column? We’re looking for co-op operations and member services staffers, from meter readers to lineworkers to engineers, who make things work at electric co-ops nationwide. Contact us at email@example.com, or you can reach writer John Vanvig directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or 360-624-4595.