"A DAY IN THE LIFE OF A METER READER"
Calling Bonnie Chilmonik a meter reader is like calling Clark Kent a reporter.
Sure, she reads meters -- a couple hundred each day -- but that's the easy part. Getting to the meters, collecting overdue payments and disconnecting or reconnecting electric service are also her responsibilities. Based on what she faces on a typical day, you could just as accurately call her an animal trainer, loan collector or psychologist.
Chilmonik, 43, has been with LCEC for 10 ˝ years, and a meter reader for the past six. A day on the job with her is …well …not unlike leaping tall buildings in a single bound.
Her route changes daily and today she was in the Suncoast section of North Fort Myers. Dogs were running loose everywhere. After pulling up to the first home and clipping on a canister of dog repellent, she stepped out of the safe confines of her white Ford pickup.
"Are you a good dog?" she asked the advancing 80-pound mass of teeth and fur, using her LCEC-provided dog psychology training. He was, head down low, tail tucked between his legs, timidly swinging his rear end side to side. She offered him a warm pat on the head in exchange for his decision not to attack her. Clear of the dog, Chilmonik then navigated the chow's backyard "mine field," ducking under tree limbs and laundry lines on her quest for the meter. Five numbers entered into her hand-held Itron computer and she's back in the truck. Mission accomplished.
One down, 214 to go.
It doesn't always work out that well. Chilmonik has been dog-bit before. Also snake bit, horse bit and fire ant bit. And then there was the pet goat.
"As far as I know, I'm the only one ever attacked by a ram," she smiles.
But the job has its upside as well. She enjoys the outside work, controlling her own time and the exercise. "I'm 43 and I still can climb fences with the best of them," she says proudly.
The rest of the morning included lots of driving, walking and sand spurs, discovery of two illegal hook ups, several locked gates and some overgrown vegetation. Even so, she completed the route before lunch, plugging her Itron computer into a DCMU (Data Cap Management Unit) at the Everest Parkway facility, where its readings were zapped to the North Fort Myers Consumer Service Office and later to the main computer -- enabling bills to be processed overnight and mailed the next day.
The afternoon was spent reconnecting and disconnecting electric service to paying -- and non-paying -- customers. Non-paying customers are given one last opportunity to pay the meter reader prior to seeing the lights go out and their meter turned 45 degrees to the right.
"People ignore you when you first knock, but once you cut the juice they run right out. What's amazing is that none of these people know each other but they all have the same excuses," says Chilmonik. "But through it all, I really enjoy the job. It's always interesting. There's always something different."
Meter Reading Immokalee Style
Juan Garcia, 26, has been an LCEC meter reader in Immokalee for the past 3˝ years. Born and raised here, Garcia is so familiar with his routes that he stops to say hello at his first grade teacher's house and even buys an "Icee-Pop" (a homemade frozen cup of Kool-Aid) from a neighbor who invites him to help himself to her kitchen freezer.
Many of his routes, which also have roving dogs -- and roosters -- cover impoverished neighborhoods where tenants change as often as the tomato, lettuce and pepper harvests. He's heard every excuse in the world to avoid disconnections.
"Many say they didn't have time or they've been in the hospital," he reports. Meter readers are given latitude based on the customer's credit history, story and their own judgment.
Garcia also read meters at the Hendry County Correctional Institute before the prison took on the task themselves. "Full security checks were required of both myself and the truck," he remembers. "Armed guards then escorted me right through the prison population. Prisoners had to move aside as we came through."
Garcia, who enjoys outside work and looking for wildlife, gets his payoff when he visits the far-flung meters located in citrus groves. Deer, wild hogs, turkeys and peacocks run freely and Garcia knows where to find them. On this day, seven deer and two peacocks were sighted in addition to alligators, turtles and ospreys along Highway 29.
Juan Garcia and Bonnie Chilmonik may be called meter readers, but after a day on the job and all they encounter, you can't help thinking they are really super, man.