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Verizon strike is over but a Laurel doctor still has repair issues

Although the 45,000 striking technical and customer support workers in nine northeastern states — including 7,300 workers in Maryland, the District of Columbia and Virginia — returned to their jobs at Verizon Corp. Aug. 22, it may still be some time before some customers have service restored.

In Laurel, a podiatrist, who by midweek was still trying to get telephone service fully connected in his new office on Mallard Drive, falls in that category.

During the strike, which started Aug. 7, thousands of customers went without service for various reasons while repair work was mainly performed by Verizon managers, leading Verizon officials to charge that fiber optic cables and other equipment were intentionally sabotaged. Communications Workers of America and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers officials, who represent the Verizon union workers, denied charges of sabotage by striking workers and released statements expressing their stance against such acts.

Before the strike ended, Verizon spokesperson Sandra Arnette said, "Equipment boxes are cut down the middle and mangled, and there have been cables that appear to have been cut with an ax."

And regardless of who was responsible, she added, "Those are not quick fixes and will take longer to repair."

That was not good news for affected customers.

Laurel podiatrist Dr. Rahul Gor said a Verizon customer service supervisor told him last week that his office's telephone problems were probably the result of sabotage. He said the supervisor suggested that he switch his service to another company.

"I told the supervisor I didn't know if the problem was sabotage or not but that I needed my phone lines working because this is a medical office and all of my lines were dead," Gor said. "I tried to go to another service, but they said they couldn't transfer the lines from Verizon, and Verizon said there was nothing they could do and that they'd get to me when they could because they said they didn't have skilled people to do the work I needed."

Gor moved his Laurel practice from Route 1 last week to the 9800 block of Mallard Drive. He said all of his lines were supposed to be forwarded to the new address before the strike began on Aug. 7, but when he and his staff moved in, none of his lines were operational, and patients calling the office received a message saying the number was no longer in service.

"My patients had no way to get in touch with me. I had no fax line — where I get lab reports — and my other two lines were not working," Gor said. "Some of my patients thought I'd gone out of business, or skipped out or something and that was scary for some of them."

According to Gor, he resorted to sending an email to Verizon's Public Relations Office. A regional director responded and had someone call him the next morning to get a new line established so calls could be forwarded to his office.

"My main office line is forwarded (to a new number) and to get lab reports, we created another new line, and called all our labs and told them to send reports to the new line," Gor said. "So we have a temporary, stop gap, patch solution now with the two lines, which I know will increase my bill. One of the (new) lines is being forwarded to a prepaid cell phone number that I purchased for the time being."

In addition to being concerned that some of his patients may have needed medical attention when they were not able to contact his office for more than three days, Gor is also concerned that he may have lost clients as well.

"This affects your business, because if a new patient calls and hears that the telephone has been disconnected, they will go to the next doctor," Gor said. "But I do have a temporary solution now, so I won't overly complain because there are people out there with bigger problems than me with no phone service, like elderly people."

'Everyone … up and running"

In Laurel, officials with senior communities such as Morningside House of Laurel, on Cherry Lane; Patuxent River Health and Rehabilitation senior facility, on Van Dusen Road; and Central Parke at Victoria Falls, on Contee Road, all said their residents had not complained about telephone service outages. A manager at Selbourne House, senior apartment homes on Main Street, said their Internet, telephone and cable service, which Verizon provides, were working well.

That was not the case in nearby Heartlands Senior Living Village, in Howard County, where most of the community's 159 seniors lost service following a storm, shortly after Verizon workers went on strike.

"Everyone is finally up and running again," Debbie Davis, a manager at Heartlands, said Aug. 22. "The last person I knew about with no telephone service was back up yesterday."

Drop in land-line profits

Now that the strike is over and union members are working indefinitely under their old contract, Arnette said, "Verizon plans to quickly address any backlog in repairs and unfulfilled requests for service."

As for talks with the union, she said, "We still will continue to negotiate seriously on the issues affecting the long-term health of our business … benefits, cost structure, work flexibility and job security are the major issues on the table. We have made progress on a number of issues, but are not commenting on those issues until we have a final contract agreement in place with the union."

Although company reports show that Verizon made more than $106 billion last year, the company's land-line division brought in $1.2 billion less during that same time frame as more people are giving up land lines for cellular service. That drop in profits is one reason company officials said some cuts in employee benefits are necessary.

"Verizon officials had called for pension freezes for employees, for union members to contribute more to their health care plans, fewer days off and a hundred demands that equal $1 billion," said CWA spokesperson Candice Johnson. "That equals $20,000 in compensation per worker, which is unreasonable for a profitable company like Verizon."

Johnson said their members have always been willing to return to work but felt Verizon officials were not negotiating in good faith and were unwilling to compromise. Union officials have been accused of the same thing by Verizon executives. Now that an understanding has been reached that has union and company officials back at the negotiating table, both sides are optimistic that service repair problems will be addressed more quickly.

"We don't want customers to be inconvenienced as we hope to move forward in real discussions," Johnson said.

In the meantime, Gor and others still without service are hoping the inconveniences they have experienced in the aftermath of the strike will be over soon.

"I'm happy that they are back at work, but we are still without phone service and counting," Gor said. "I am still being held hostage."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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