The Meter Readers

No matter the distance or weather, they're in your neighborhood
Monday, September 29, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 5:24 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

It’s already nearing 90 degrees at 9:30 on a Thursday morning, and Jimmy Ott has found his oasis — a large, red Water and Light van cresting a hill in the Valleyview Garden subdivision.

Perspiration staining his blue work shirt and Cardinals hat, his sleeves rolled up and arms baking in the sun, he fills his paper cup twice from the mud-stained cooler that sits in the van’s back seat. He finally called in on his radio for water after having walked several miles on his meter-reading route, which isn’t completed yet.

In less than two hours, Ott has read 295 water and electric meters. He has 118 left on this day’s route, and he hopes to have them done before his lunch break, in one hour.

Out of the 21 routes he walks every month, Ott considers this one his easiest. He says the houses he has to read this day — traipsing through front and back yards — are close together, and the meters are fairly accessible. Moving at a brisk pace, he unscrews water tile covers, pauses at electric meters and enters the numbers he finds into a handheld computer database, all the while ducking tree branches, squeezing through gate openings and keeping an eye out for dogs.

It all works up quite a sweat, but the heat on days like this isn’t too bad when looking at the occupation in its entirety, he says.

“There’s never an ideal time to do this job,” Ott said.

If it’s not the heat, then it’s the rain, the cold air and snow, or leaves coating the ground during the fall months that have to be brushed aside in order to find and read water meters. If there is such a thing as a good time to read meters, Ott thinks that time might be the first two weeks of spring, when the ground is clear and the temperature is just right.

Each month, Ott, along with six other full-time and two part-time meter readers with the Columbia Water and Light Department, collectively read 77,000 water and electric meters. Working five days a week, they show up at headquarters at 7 a.m., congregating in supervisor Morgan Long’s office before piling in the van and heading out to walk 5- to 10-mile routes. During the mornings and into the early afternoon they give meters an initial read, then work the rest of the day double checking their readings, documenting those that are above or below Water and Light limits.

The job, which starts at $10 an hour, exacts a hard toll upon those willing to take the punishment. It has a high turnover rate, but not because people quit. Long says it’s mainly because workers are constantly moving up the job ladder at Water and Light.

Meter reading is a “proving ground,” he said, a low rung to help workers step up to jobs as electricians, linemen and underground crewmen with the city.

At the age of 20, Ott has been reading for two years, the longest of any of the active workers. Eventually, he hopes to move on to wiring and underground work.

A good day

It’s 10 minutes before 7 a.m. on the same Thursday morning that Jimmy Ott will fulfill his easiest route, and full-time readers Russ Crowley, Derrick Gallatin, and Scott Williamson, along with assistant supervisor Tony Pope, sit and talk as they wait for their co-workers. Touching on hunting, the upcoming MU football game, as well as the day’s route schedules, they all eventually focus on Williamson, who sits in his supervisor’s black office chair, a grin spread across his face.

Williamson is talking to his 3-year-old son, whose high-pitched voice is coming through the speaker phone. The two discuss a new toy motorcycle for a few minutes, then Williamson speaks to his wife before saying good-bye. In about half an hour, Williamson will be stepping out of the Water and Light van in a neighborhood somewhere in southeastern Columbia, ready to walk eight miles and to read close to 500 meters.

Shortly after the phone call that had everyone’s attention, Long walks into the office at 7 a.m. sharp.

He is sturdily built and wears a dark-blue collared shirt, worn boots, jeans, and a stern look across his face that is accented by a red goatee. The workers’ conversations don’t pause — no awkward silences, no indication that the boss has just stepped in the room. On the contrary, Long mixes right in with the flow of talk.

Long gets along well with his workers because he has been in their shoes before.

For three and a half years, he too walked countless miles through the cold, rain and heat five days a week reading meters. Only a couple of months ago did he make his way up to this position from assistant supervisor.

“I’ve been there, so I understand these guys pretty well,” said the soft-spoken Long. “I know that this job is tough on you, day in and day out.”

This morning Ott shows up quiet and apparently tired, having woken up at 6:30 a.m. to make the 20-minute drive from his home. The group is now complete.

Gallatin and Crowley leave in a company truck to read local business meters that are spread too far to make walking an option. Everyone else heads out of the office and piles into the large red van. Ott takes the front seat next to Pope, the driver.

The ride is short, punctuated by the lively conversations carried over from the office. Brian Curtis is the first to exit. Stepping into an anonymous front yard, he pulls up the cover to a water tile next to him, then moves down a steep hill and around the side of the house. His form grows smaller by the moment out of the van’s back window.

Next is Williamson, yelling a farewell to his co-workers as he pounces out the side door. Then there’s Jimmy “Possum” Hendren, wearing a camouflage cap and bragging about how fast he walks his routes. Ott is one of the last to leave.

Taking off at a swift pace, Ott lifts up the water tile covers, glancing at the numbers staring up at him a foot down in the ground before moving on to the electric meters at the back of the houses. He moves with the steady precision of a veteran, attacking his work with a youthful energy.

These readers know their meters inside and out.

Throughout his 5-plus-mile route, Ott never once stopped to search for a water or electric meter. Walking through messes of shrubbery, grass and branches, he makes a beeline from one point to another. His database knows the location of meters at each house, but Ott said he never needs a reminder.

“I don’t even think about it anymore, I just do it,” he said.

Ott is the first to admit that there isn’t much to his job — he walks through neighborhoods, he reads numbers, he records the numbers. Though lacking in complexity, meter reading is a tough living. Even after two years, Ott still wakes up with sore muscles from time to time.

“There are some days when you just don’t want to come in to work,” he said.

Cradled under his right arm as he walks is the handheld database, along with what one reader refers to as a “get right stick.” There’s really not much to the “stick” — a 3-foot piece of clear plastic tubing, with a lens and a small artist’s brush duct-taped to one end. However, it is the most important tool of the trade, providing both protection and reading clarity. Meter readers use the stick to ward off aggressive dogs, as well as sweep away grime from the water tile to accurately view the meter numbers.

Only one time has Ott ever had to use his piece of plastic tubing in self-defense. A black Labrador retriever charged at him as he entered a back yard, he remembers. Another time he panicked and didn’t use his stick when a pit bull chased him and another worker back to the Water and Light van. To make matters worse, the other worker got to the vehicle ahead of him and shut the door.

“You’ll think dogs are friendly,” Ott said. “And then they try to bite you.”

Long said that Ott and all the other readers know where every dog is on every route and whether or not they’re friendly. And indeed, Ott provided an analysis of many back yards well before entering them. At one point he wondered why two golden retrievers didn’t come to greet him as he walked through the gate, looking down at the trampled earth and a pair of empty food dishes. Another time, he cautioned against walking too close to a miniature pinscher chained around the side of one house. Sure enough, it growled and snapped as he drew close, latching on to the artist’s brush at the end of the plastic tubing.

When he first started reading meters, Ott said, he felt awkward walking through people’s yards — for anyone else it’s trespassing. For the most part, however, Ott doesn’t have to deal with people on his routes. But then there would be the occasional suspicious glance through a window, or an abrupt, “who’s there?” scattered around. And each time, with a wave, Ott would politely reply, “meter reader.”

Sitting on a bench in front of her house, Pat Harmon and Kathy Poletti strike up a conversation with Ott as he walks by. They ask him about his job and his schooling, among other things. He tells them about his one semester of college and how the whole experience just wasn’t for him. He also tells them about playing baseball all his life and of his home in Harrisburg. As it turns out, Harmon’s son went to the same high school as Ott.

People aren’t always as friendly to meter readers as are Harmon and Poletti. Sometimes, Ott said, property owners will yell or threaten him by saying they will call the police. One time he was even chased out of a back yard. And then there are the awkward moments that come with catching people off guard in the early morning hours, like the half-naked elderly woman Ott encountered walking through her garden on this Thursday morning.

“That’s a first,” Ott said as he walked away, trying to suppress a grin.

By 8:30, the sun is beating down with full force from a cloudless sky. But right now Ott is walking beneath a row of trees that extend along several houses. Ott said that shade is always a blessing and one of the perks of meter reading.

By 10:30, Ott has finished his route. Drenched with sweat and pleased with his performance, he sits on the curb in front of his last house and calls for Pope to pick him up. He estimates that the route spanned just over six miles — pretty easy, he says.

A bad day

The next day is a completely different story.

It’s just before 8 a.m. Friday, and Ott is wading through a tangle of plants and branches, trying to reach an electric meter in the very far corner of a back yard somewhere off Thilly Avenue. Through the trees, the sky is overcast and somber, and it’s not clear if the rain is falling from the clouds or from the damp canopy that’s always overhead in this part of town.

The overgrowth and the distance between meters in these extensive yards make this Ott’s worst route. He estimates that it will take him until noon to read the scheduled 423 meters.

“You dread these kind of days,” Ott said.

That’s just the nature of meter reading — one day the sun is out and you’re reading your easiest route, the next day you’re trudging through wet overgrowth on your hardest route.

And the weather rarely provides off days for readers. According to Long, only if the temperature is colder than 10 below or if there is a severe storm warning, do they not go out. And in his years of experience, Long can only remember two of these instances. Sick days, he explained, are few in number as well. Part-time readers are usually able to pick up a route if someone is ill.

In the end, it’s all just temporary — a “proving ground” as Long explained.

But that doesn’t mean they don’t do their job well. Last year, according to Long, Columbia meter readers failed to read only 16 out of 77,000 meters, and operated at a 99.63 percent accuracy rate.

Some months ago, a group of about 60 workers at Water and Light, including Ott and the other meter readers, came one number away from winning the Missouri Lottery Powerball jackpot. Instead of countless millions, they ended up splitting the $5,000 concession prize, which came out to about $100 each.

Sitting in the van after finishing their routes, Ott, Pope, Curtis, Williamson and part-time reader Matt Battye talk about what they would have done with their share of the jackpot. Fancy cars, enormous houses and boats, among other things, are what paint their dreams. Turning around in the front seat, Ott summed it all up.

“I wouldn’t be working anymore if I had won,” he said. “But I didn’t, so I’ll keep coming in.”

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