JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- They are hard to miss - big JEA bucket trucks rolling through the streets of Jacksonville.
The city's utility company has 100 of the trucks on the road at any time, 1,000 vehicles in all.
But where do the trucks go when no one is looking? What do the JEA utility crews do then?
Acting on a tip, First Coast News spent eight random days over the last three months to find out, watching crews leaving in the morning from the Southside Service Center.
We found plenty of crews hard at work, installing poles and making repairs, but day after day we also found crew members clocking in at 7 a.m., then making their first stop not at a power outage, but at a restaurant just around the corner on St. Augustine Road.
It wasn't something that happens just every once in a while; it happened every day we watched.
On Nov. 10, we found 11 JEA bucket trucks at the restaurant in the morning. Nov. 13, the small parking lot was overflowing with 11 trucks again, all there before 8:30.
Four trucks stayed 30 minutes, and three stayed for 24. On Dec. 9, we followed two bucket trucks straight from JEA headquarters on Emerson Street to breakfast. There were three trucks already there.
We timed three, which stayed 40 minutes, but according to an email from a JEA spokesperson, employees' contracts say they don't get a break on normal days until four hours into a shift.
JEA customer Tomeka Bekela struggled this winter to pay her $400 energy bill, the highest she's ever received.
She was stunned by what we showed her. "It's frustrating. It's absolutely frustrating, but now I see why the bill is so high," said Bekela. "Well, actually, no, I don't see why the bill is so high because they do absolutely nothing."
On Dec. 9, we followed truck 5678 leaving the restaurant. The truck and a crew of four other trucks worked at a house for two hours, then wrapped up at 10:50. The crew dispersed, and number 5678 hit the convenience store for 10 minutes and then drove to a wooded lot off Hartley Road.
Already, there were three trucks parked there. Twenty minutes later two trucks left the lot and the crews headed to KFC for lunch for 54 minutes, then they returned to the wooded lot at 12:17.
Two hours later, at 2:30 - three hours and 25 minutes after going to the lot - truck 5678 came out. It went to another gas station store, then back to the Emerson Street headquarters apparently ending the day at 3:05. For the whole day, 8:30 to 3:05: a total of two hours of work.
"I'd have to look at it on a case-by-case basis but generally no, they should be on a job, going to a job," says JEA Southside manager John Pitre.
Pitre, who is in charge of every crew south of the river, told us crews should not be taking either breakfast breaks or parking their truck somewhere.
But Jan. 13, a bucket truck sat for an hour and 45 minutes at the same wooded lot, then headed to a neighborhood on Hood Landing Road. Twenty minutes later, it was back and parked at the same lot.
Forty-five minutes later it headed to a Mandarin neighborhood, where a crew appeared to work for 15 minutes then sat on a street for an hour from 2:45 to 3:45. After that the crew returned to the wooded lot where it sat the rest of the day. The next day the same truck was parked at the lot for four hours.
When questioned JEA told us it is not normal for a truck to be parked so long, but it said the employee was also doing some work on his truck.
"I just don't understand how that can go on, really, you cannot be this naïve to know that your trucks are being parked and there's no work that's being done. Where's the work being done? Where's the accountability?" said Bekela.
Pitre said he is a JEA customer too and it makes him angry.
"Perception-wise it's very bad...if I saw something like that I'd be angry too. I myself I take the trust of the community and citizens seriously and if I saw something like this going on I'd probably do the same thing and report it," said Pitre.
"As my position here, now that I know about it, I'll do what I can to investigate this and deal with it appropriately."
The timesheets from the days First Coast News followed crews, not one of the linemen riding in the trucks parked at the restaurant reported taking that break. The bucket trucks FCN followed for full days did not reflect downtime either.
Pitre claims it is only a small percentage of employees and that JEA will investigate and see punishment if needed.
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