On this New Year's Eve, 
you may party on the job

By Laura A. Bruce, bankrate.com
Last Update: 8:00 AM ET May 27, 1999
Personal Finance News
Chat: Talk about Y2K

NORTH PALM BEACH, Fla.(bankrate.com) -- It will be dark by 4 p.m. Dec. 31. In some parts of this country's biggest state it'll be dark all day.

I suspect we may find a local establishment where we could have a little bit of a party and then come over here at midnight, and if everything's OK, we could go back to the party.

Russell Johnson

Above the Arctic Circle on Alaska's northern slope, where the Alaska oil pipeline starts near Prudhoe Bay, it may be 40 degrees below zero that night.

The pipeline is four feet wide and 800 miles long. It snakes southward across three mountain ranges, 34 major rivers and streams, and every so often it runs under someone's backyard. The journey ends in the port of Valdez.

Every day a couple million barrels of hot oil move silently through the pipeline at about five miles per hour. A couple million barrels of oil rolling 800 miles over and under some of the most beautiful, most brutal land in America. Along the route there are 62 remote-controlled gate valves that play a critical role. If the pipeline springs a leak, the valves will stop the oil flow and prevent rivers of oil from spoiling the land and killing wildlife.

Watchers of the valves

Enter the Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. in Anchorage. These folks know oil -- and spills. In addition to delivering 20 percent of the nation's crude oil, they monitor the pipeline for leaks and clean them up when they happen.

Ten years after the devastating Exxon Valdez spill in Prince William Sound, Alyeska is acutely aware of how important it is to respond quickly to a spill. Although Alyeska spokesman Dave Lawrence says the company is on schedule with correcting potential Y2K problems, it is considering an extra effort this New Year's Eve to make sure there are no surprises.

Alyeska is considering putting two-person teams along the pipeline at each of the gate valves. Here's why: The huge, 70,000-pound valves get their commands, says Lawrence, by microwave or satellite -- soon by fiber-optic cable. The everyday practice at Alyeska is to shut the pipe if Alyeska loses communication with a valve for more than two minutes. When that happens, someone is sent out to check the valve until communication is restored.

At each valve is a metal shelter housing racks of electronics. It serves a function but, in Lawrence's words, "It wasn't built to be hospitable." It is in these metal shelters, along 800 miles of frozen tundra, that the two-person teams may be stationed to ring in the New Year and make sure a Y2K glitch doesn't prevent technicians from communicating with the valves if there's a spill. Lawrence says a final decision about putting people out there won't be made until the fall.

If it happens, it takes the cake for the worst Y2K New Year's Eve assignment I've heard.

On the job on New Year's Eve

More people will be working this New Year's Eve than ever before. Sure, police, fire, paramedics, hospital and utility personnel will be working the holiday. But this year, thousands of other employees -- mainly computer specialists -- will join them.

The most historic New Year's Eve in our lifetimes will find lots of Americans sitting in fluorescent-lighted offices instead of dancing the night away with the one they love.

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"There will probably be some unhappy spouses," says Russell Johnson, operations manager for Provident Bank (PBKS) of Maryland in Baltimore.

Johnson and his gang will try to make the best of the night.

"I suspect we may find a local establishment where we could have a little bit of a party and then come over here at midnight, and if everything's OK, we could go back to the party," he says.

Johnson expects to have about 20 of his people on hand that night. People who have been working hard to make the bank Y2K compliant.

"I don't think I'll have to twist people's arms. No one involved in this is going to be comfortable sitting at home or at some party," he says. "We're very confident of what we control. The things we worry about are telephone and electricity -- things we don't control."

Keeping the lights on

The people who do control those things are in the process of figuring their New Year's Eve plans, too. Detroit Edisonspokesman Scott Simons says his company is trying to determine how many employees will be needed that night.

"There hasn't been any big backlash saying it's unfair. We respond to weather emergencies, so employees realize they may have to work holidays. When you sign on with Detroit Edison, you know that's part of the deal," says Simons.

Many companies will have skeleton crews working Dec. 31, but have canceled vacations during periods ranging from September through February to just a week before and after the Y2K rollover. Other companies are letting employees take vacations as long as they don't wander too far.

"We're asking that they try to remain accessible should there be some problem," says Paine Webber spokesman Paul Thomas at the company's New York headquarters. "In other words, be in the vicinity rather than in the Canadian Rockies."

On the opposite end of the spectrum is one company that's going to great lengths to make sure employees are very close in case Y2K gremlins throw a New Year's Eve bash. According to Sen. Robert Bennett, R-Utah, chairman of a Senate committee on Y2K, "A very large financial services company has booked 400 hotel rooms in downtown Manhattan for New Year's Eve." Bennett won't name the company because he says he's been sworn to secrecy, but says he was told the rooms will be filled with the company's technical people so "they're within walking distance of our computers."

Certain that the problems are licked

Mellon Bank, headquartered in Pittsburgh, has so much faith that its Y2K problems have been eradicated that it's opening for business Jan. 1. How many branches will open is still being decided, says spokesman Ron Gruendl.

"We have two offices in downtown Pittsburgh -- how many people will be working in downtown Pittsburgh over the weekend? Should we have those offices open? Probably not," he says. "But should we have them open in neighborhoods, near the malls? Probably."

While Mellon is sure about its own compliance, it'll be keeping a close eye on systems that affect it.

"Through the weekend, we'll have people working in every line of the business to make sure third-party systems are integrating properly," Gruendl says.

With a little bit of luck and a lot of work, 12:01 a.m., Jan. 1, 2000, will come and go without a hitch. People who spent the night on the job -- whether on Wall Street or above the Arctic Circle -- will pop the champagne corks and toast themselves and the New Year.

Laura A. Bruce
is a reporter for bankrate.com which has provided this article for CBS MarketWatch.