Two ComEd (Chicago, Illinois) field employees were violently attacked in Joliet and Kankakee over the past two weeks, raising the number of vicious assaults against ComEd field employees to 27 since Jan. 2006.

In 2006, four masked robbers stole about $40 from ComEd employee Steve Sheehan at gunpoint in 2006 while he was in the South Side's Englewood neighborhood to repair a meter. Robbers also pistol-whipped a contractor working with himm according to the Chicago Sun-Times.

But thanks to a new law that went into effect Jan. 1, the penalties have increased for those who physically attack utility workers in Illinois.

The new Utility Worker Protection Law now defines threats and attacks on utility workers as "aggravated" offenses with dramatically higher penalties. If a meter reader or energy technician is threatened while on the job, the assailant may be tried for a felony rather than a misdemeanor charge.

Convictions for attacking utility workers could result in 5-to-10 year jail sentence.

"We greatly appreciate the attention legislators gave to this issue," ComEd President and COO J. Barry Mitchell said. "Because of the stiffer penalties, Illinois utility workers will have an added degree of legal protection that puts them in line with other first-responders like firemen. The safety of our customers and employees is our top priority, and this law sends a strong message that our front line employees should be left alone to do their jobs."

Kevin Brookins, ComEd vice president of Work Management & New Business, suggested the new law in 2005 after Pennsylvania enacted a similar measure. ComEd's legal and governmental affairs departments worked with state legislators and other utilities to enact the Illinois version.

The company has already begun publicizing the stricter penalties through bill inserts and other communication vehicles.