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All Things Considered

As Worker Strike Continues, Fairpoint Comes Under Scrutiny In Vermont

Emily Corwin

For nearly two months, more than 1,700 workers in northern New England have been off the job at Fairpoint Communications. The strike, they say, will continue until Fairpoint offers them a better contract. Fairpoint says the workers are the ones who need to compromise further.

And some customers in northern New England say the standoff has had an effect on them. This week, Vermont’s Public Service Board is set to begin an investigation into reports of service problems and outages.

Steve Zind has been following this story for Vermont Public Radio, and he gave All Things Considered an update.

What is the Public Service Board looking at in particular?

The particular metric is the delay in repairs to home telephone lines - I'm talking about landlines, not internet service. They are supposed to turn repairs around within 24 hours. A couple of months ago it had gotten up to a 5-7 day average delay in repairs, and we hear many stories from people who have been without phone service for much longer than that.

The Public Service Department says it's been trying to work with Fairpoint for some time to correct the problem, but when the strike began in October, the number of customer complaints spiked. The Public Service Department has asked the Public Service Board, which is the quasi-judicial body that regulates utilities, to look into this and to take steps to rectify it.

At the same time, there was a concern over an outage in a 911 system during a recent snowstorm.

That's right. There was an outage a week ago last Friday. Part of the problem was storm-related damage to a fiber optic line, but another part of the problem was a system failure. And so the Public Service Department, in addition to asking the Public Service Board to look into those service delay issues, has also asked it to look into why both the primary and backup systems were lost.

If the investigation finds problems and can say that Fairpoint was responsible, what are the potential consequences for the company?

In all likelihood, what they will try to do is demand specific steps that Fairpoint takes, after an investigation is conducted and after they've heard from experts and formulated a plan for Fairpoint to improve these problems. I doubt they'll issue any fines - I could be wrong about that, but I think the state has been very sensitive to Fairpoint's financial situation and doesn't want to add more burden to what's already a very burdensome financial situation for the company.

Vermont has approved unemployment benefits for some striking workers - and that has not been the case in this state or in Maine.

Correct. The commissioner of the Department of Labor, Annie Noonan, says by and large the striking Fairpoint workers were eligible for unemployment benefits. That's not been without controversy, but that's been the department's and the state's determination. About 300 striking Vermont workers are receiving unemployment benefits.

Is there any sign these two sides might actually be able to find agreement sometime?

Well, you never know what goes on behind the scenes, but if you're going to judge from the public statements made by both sides, there is no sign that they're going to resolve this anytime soon. There are no meetings scheduled; they've only had one brief meeting at the behest of a federal mediator since the strike began. And the two sides are very far apart.

As is often the case in these situations, both sides maybe have to feel more pain before there is some sort of resolution. The striking workers, even those in Vermont, are living off savings, credit cards - there is no strike fund to support workers in northern New England. And the company itself is dealing with these service problems - it cost them something like $17 million dollars in the most recently completed quarter to incur the legal expenses, the expenses involved with replacement workers, and, of course, it's dealing with the unhappy customers and, in this case in Vermont, unhappy regulators.

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