- David Junkin
"Enough is enough." That was Gov. Peter Shumlin's message in a December 12 letter to FairPoint Communications CEO Paul Sunu. The governor urged the telecommunications company — which provides telephone and internet service for roughly 200,000 customers in Vermont — to resolve its dispute with striking workers.
State officials and FairPoint customers are exasperated with the telecom, for good reason: Since the strike began October 17, residents have lodged almost 600 complaints against the company with the Vermont Public Service Department, the agency that regulates the telecommunications industry. Complaints over the same period last year totaled 93.
Some customers have reported waits of three or four weeks to get downed phone service reinstated. In some cases, customers are waiting even longer for new telephone service to be installed, according to the PSD.
Just registering complaints with FairPoint has also been problematic, according to PSD records: Shortly after the strike began, some customers were spending half the day on hold waiting for customer service representatives to answer their questions. Call times have gotten significantly shorter in recent weeks.
Meanwhile, outages have compromised public safety. On November 28, two fiber cables broke in New Hampshire and, as a result, many Vermonters couldn't call 911 for five hours; roughly 100 calls did not get through to the emergency line.
Last week phone services cut out for several hours at the Colchester Police Department.
Customers are frustrated — and, in many cases, without alternatives. In Vermont, FairPoint is considered the provider of last resort, meaning it provides phone service in parts of the state where no competition exists. The PSD estimates that for between 15,000 and 20,000 Vermonters, FairPoint is the only choice for landline telephone service.
Patrick Cogan of Milton is one of the so-called "captive" customers. His internet and phone service cut out unexpectedly in late October. When he called FairPoint initially, a customer service rep told him that someone with a New Hampshire area code had canceled his service. A few days later, it clicked back on — only to fail again almost immediately.
Over the next four weeks, he said, he spent an estimated 15 to 20 hours on the phone with FairPoint representatives, calling from the organic farm where he works in Jericho or from his neighbor's house, which is a 10-minute walk from his own home. That same neighbor received robocalls from FairPoint on Cogan's behalf — sometimes alerting Cogan that the company was canceling a service call that he hadn't known was scheduled in the first place.
At his most desperate, Cogan drove over to the FairPoint customer service building on Hinesburg Road in South Burlington. He'd seen the news about the strike, including images of picketing workers. He found an empty parking lot and a seemingly deserted building. "There's nobody locally I could talk to," Cogan said.
"We do have a backlog [of service calls]," acknowledged FairPoint spokeswoman Angelynne Beaudry. She said that since "our workforce walked off the job," FairPoint has put in place a contingency plan composed of management and nonunion workers now on the job.
Beaudry also said that several outages have been weather related, though she wouldn't speak in detail about general causes for phone or internet problems. PSD officials said the company has told them that outages are taking longer to fix because replacement staff face a learning curve as they adjust to the area and learn FairPoint's systems.
FairPoint, which is based in North Carolina, started bringing in temporary workers from other states in October to replace those on strike. Union leaders, who coordinate mobile picketing at work sites around the region, have noted license plates from as far south as Florida and Georgia.
"You can't bring people in here that don't know the area, don't know our plant, and expect them to do anything," said Mike Spillane, business manager at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 2326. Also on strike are members of the Communications Workers of America, a union that represents customer service employees at FairPoint.
"What you're experiencing out there right now is an unprofessional workforce that is a hodgepodge Band-Aid by FairPoint," said Spillane.
FairPoint won't say how many workers they've brought in to replace the roughly 1,700 employees striking in northern New England, 370 of whom are from Vermont. Even the PSD doesn't know the exact numbers of replacement workers.
"What they've said is that they believe their staffing is sufficient to handle the needs of the company," said Autumn Barnett, consumer affairs director at PSD. But, Barnett said, "It certainly has not been sufficient so far, as the numbers show."
A downed landline is especially scary for some customers; people who don't have cell reception at home or who have serious medical conditions are particularly vulnerable. Barnett said FairPoint does prioritize outages affecting such people but that it's impossible to know when someone might need a landline for a future emergency.
It worried Jacqueline Larsen, a senior widow living alone on Lake Eden. Her cellphone doesn't work at home, and the Lifeline button she has for emergencies relies on a working landline. "I realize FairPoint is on strike," Larsen wrote in an email to Seven Days last week when her phone service cut out for a day, "but I need phone service reinstated ASAP."
PSD's Barnett recently heard from a woman with a young child at home who has been without service for weeks.
"I totally feel for her," said Barnett.
Meanwhile, in Milton, Cogan's situation went from to inconvenient to Kafkaesque. When Cogan's brother tried to call him, a woman picked up, and told him that she'd been receiving phone calls intended for Cogan for a while, including important messages from his doctor's office.
"It was three weeks into it when I found out that somehow, at some point, my phone had been reconnected to someone else's line" — to that of a neighbor who lives about a mile and a half away, said Cogan. "I didn't know her — but I do now," he said with a chuckle.
He described the outage as a huge hassle, and said that he felt "totally cut off from the world." As an agricultural worker, he wanted to find seasonal jobs for the winter but didn't have a way for potential employers to contact him. He'd also just waded into the world of online dating. "Let me tell you," he said. "Lousy timing."
Cogan finally broke down and purchased a prepaid cellphone.
Four and a half weeks after the ordeal began, a FairPoint service technician from Atlanta, Ga., showed up; two days later, Cogan's service and original phone number were back up and running. He suspects that if he and his brother hadn't figured out the mix-up, he could still be without service today. "FairPoint really needs to pull their game up," said Cogan, "or they're not going to have much more game to play up here."
Cogan's considering dropping his FairPoint service; a few neighbors already have, opting instead to rely solely on their cellphones. But he is, by his own admission, not a techie guy; he'd prefer to have a landline.
In Middlesex, Patricia Hoffman isn't bothering to report her outage to FairPoint. In 2010 and early 2011, Hoffman spent many hours on the phone with the company over a six-week span, trying to get her phone service set up.
Though her phone hasn't been working for about two weeks, Hoffman said by email that she hasn't called the company "because even a white rat learns what actions are futile and quits trying."
Hoffman's experience speaks to what regulators at the PSD have long known: Service issues at FairPoint predate the current strike. In particular, FairPoint consistently fails to meet one metric the department tracks: "troubles cleared within 24 hours."
"That one, they're kind of off the charts," said Jim Porter, the director of the telecommunications division at PSD. In fact, the PSD approached the Vermont Public Service Board with concerns about the issue last December, Porter said. FairPoint's own reports to the PSB showed that the company only managed to fix outages within 24 hours on average 48 percent of the time in the year leading up to July 2014.
Earlier this month, the PSD petitioned the PSB to open a formal investigation into FairPoint. The investigation will take months, Porter said.
Despite the slew of outages, FairPoint is on track to take over the state's 911 services next August. The contract is already signed, and FairPoint has started working on the nine-month transition. David Tucker, who directs the Vermont Enhanced 911 Board, said the company's bid was the most affordable and complete of three submitted.
"We're certainly cognizant of those concerns at the residential level," said Tucker, but he said FairPoint has recently taken over 911 services in Maine. Vermont officials spoke with their counterparts there, and some traveled to Maine to see FairPoint's 911 system in action. "We think that the solution is a good solution," said Tucker. As for the November 911 outage — where both the primary cable routing those calls and the secondary backup failed — Tucker insisted it was "very, very unusual."