BOSTON -- NStar cautioned its customers yesterday that they could see longer waits for service as a strike by more than 1,900 of the electric and gas utility's workers entered a second day with no negotiations scheduled. But NStar said it was confident its contingency plan -- in which managers and outside contractors are filling in for the striking workers -- would prevent major disruptions in service to its 1.4 million eastern and central Massachusetts customers. "We're confident in our ability to serve our customers," NStar spokeswoman Caroline Allen said. The company said hundreds of managers who have been diverted from their normal duties are well-trained for their temporary roles in field operations, and the dozens of contractors who are assisting have worked with NStar before. But striking workers who maintain and repair NStar's energy distribution systems say the utility is ill-prepared without experienced linemen and engineers to respond to a large outage or a heat wave that could produce a surge in energy demand. Neither side reported major service disruptions yesterday because of the strike, which involves nearly two-thirds of NStar's 3,000 employees. Members of the Utility Workers of America Local 369 walked out Monday after their five-year contract expired and months of negotiations toward a new agreement collapsed. No new talks are scheduled, and both sides say it's up to the other party to move toward resuming negotiations. A note posted on NStar's Web site yesterday said the utility "is working to continue critical business functions." But the note also says customers "may experience delays in electric service requests. We appreciate your patience." The Boston-based, investor-owned utility said customers phoning its call center may have to wait longer than usual to get through. Hookups for new service may also be delayed, and NStar is temporarily suspending some money-back guarantees to any customers who don't receive timely service. The utility is also putting off some routine equipment replacement and other system improvements. Strike issues include the proposed elimination of vision and dental care for retirees, forced overtime, and a proposed two-tier pension system that would cut benefits for new workers. NStar also wants to change a scheduling rule so it can assign workers to repair overhead power lines during the late afternoon as part of their regular shifts, rather than on overtime. The union accuses the company of reducing staff so drastically that its crews can no longer do preventive maintenance to address safety problems, including the deaths of dogs shocked by so-called stray voltage from underground lines, and underground explosions that have dislodged manhole covers. NStar disputes claims that it has not addressed safety, and says safety is not relevant to the walkout. The company has offered to hire 132 more union workers, many of them to handle maintenance. NStar serves about 1.1 million electric customers and 300,000 natural gas customers in the Boston metropolitan area, Worcester and coastal areas from Cape Cod to Cape Ann.    

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