It's been five days since 85-year-old Odra Pickeral has had phone service in her residence. Macular degeneration makes seeing a keypad tough, and her home's phone is programmed for frequently dialed numbers.
Pickeral is one of more than 100 residents at Heartlands Senior Living Village in Ellicott City who has had to share community phones for almost a week because of the Verizon Communications Inc. worker strike.
"I have to ask someone to dial the phone for me," she said. "My daughter tried to call the other day to see if I needed groceries, medications, and couldn't get through. She had to drive over to see what I needed."
Heartlands is a victim of Verizon's contractual dispute with workers from the Communications Workers of America, the union that represents Verizon technicians in Maryland. The strike of about 4,000 union employees in the state started Sunday, coinciding with a powerful storm that blew through Howard County and knocked out service for the senior community.
In states from Virginia to Massachusetts, about 45,000 Verizon workers, represented by the CWA and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, are striking after contract negotiations failed largely over the amount that union employees would be required to pay for health care and pension and retirement contributions. At the heart of the dispute is Verizon's desire to cut costs in its landline business, which has been less profitable in recent years and relies heavily on union employees.
Talks are continuing, a union spokeswoman said.
"About half of us are on oxygen or have various physical disabilities. Most of us don't have cellphones," said Cynthia Bonora, 78. Residents have been gathering around the community phones to make all of their calls, to relatives, doctors and friends, she said.
Sharon Kruskamp, the community's executive director, said that only about a dozen of the 159 independent living residents still have service.
Over the past several months, Verizon — in anticipation of the end of the workers' contract — trained managers from all departments to take over call centers and handle service requests in case of a strike, said spokesman Richard Young.
The managers, he said, are supposed to be "focusing right now especially on those who are elderly and ill."
Young explained that some of the repair delays are caused by the picketing tactics of striking workers, who are inhibiting replacement workers and managers from getting out into the field.
"They lock arms and stand in the driveway and dare the driver to move forward," Young said of workers protesting outside Verizon's regional offices and garages where service vehicles are parked. In Thursday's statement, the company said that six people on a picket line "were arrested by Baltimore County police earlier this week for illegally blocking an entrance at a Verizon facility in Randallstown."
The repair delays may actually be caused by replacement workers, said Candice Johnson, a spokeswoman for the CWA.
"With other companies," Johnson said of past phone company strikes, "there have been instances where replacement workers, contract workers create more problems."
To residents at Heartlands, the reason behind the repair delay is irrelevant.
"Oh, come on now," said Warren Whittaker, 85, who uses his phone several times a week to talk to family members and make appointments with doctors. "We can't go without phones."
Heartlands has internal push-button communications systems that are linked to every residence, said Kruskamp, so residents are still able to call for assistance if needed. Residents are "extremely frustrated" because they have not been able to make calls out of the community — and in the privacy of their homes — for five days, she said.
The community's management has made calls to Verizon several times a day, she said, and Heartlands is not the only Howard County retirement facility with phone problems.
An employee who answered the phone at the Sunrise Senior Living Community in Columbia said that only one phone used by the staff was working. She would not comment on how many residents were without phones.
Verizon customer service representatives told Heartlands' managers Wednesday that repairs would be expedited because many of the residents are elderly and have physical ailments, Kruskamp said. As the day came to a close without technicians arriving, they were told the service ticket had, somehow, been canceled.