Fairpoint plan spells fear for workers’ benefits

Posted Oct. 30, 2009, at 6:23 a.m.
Darlene Stone, 50, of Colchester, Vt., is seen, Thursday, Oct. 29, 2009 in Colchester, Vt. Stone retired from her job as an administrative assistant at FairPoint Communications call center in South Burlington, and fears the company's descent into bankruptcy could lead to a cut in benefits (AP Photo/Alison Redlich)
AP
Darlene Stone, 50, of Colchester, Vt., is seen, Thursday, Oct. 29, 2009 in Colchester, Vt. Stone retired from her job as an administrative assistant at FairPoint Communications call center in South Burlington, and fears the company's descent into bankruptcy could lead to a cut in benefits (AP Photo/Alison Redlich)

COLCHESTER, Vt. — Thirty-year telephone company worker Darlene Stone campaigned against FairPoint Communications’ takeover of Verizon’s northern New England operations, fearing the company was biting off more than it could chew.

Once the deal was completed, she worried FairPoint would end up filing for bankruptcy and she would have her wages, pension or medical benefits scaled back. So she retired last May from her $45,000-a-year job as an administrative assistant in a South Burlington call center.

Now that the Charlotte, N.C.-based telecommunications provider has filed for Chapter 11, she’s not in the mood to gloat or say “I told you so.” She’s worried about her medical benefits.

FairPoint filed Monday after agreeing on a deal with key lenders to lower its debt from $2.7 billion to $1 billion and cut its interest expenses. The plan, which is subject to approval by the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in the Southern District of New York, seeks $30 million in concessions from its unions in northern New England.

The company has about 4,100 employees, including about 2,700 in the three states. Union workers are represented by the Communications Workers of America and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

Others besides Stone worry about losing pay or benefits.

“People are fearing the loss of their jobs, they’re fearing cuts in wages, cuts in benefits, they’re fearing increased pressure to perform at work, they’re fearing all of that,” said Ralph Montefusco, a staff member of the Communications Workers of America, in Burlington.

“They just started the bankruptcy process. We don’t know what that’s going to mean. How this is all going to shake out and what will eventually be the reality is far from decided. But if you were taking calls or climbing poles or starting lines, that probably wouldn’t be much comfort for you,” Montefusco said.

For Stone, who has two chronic health conditions that require $1,500 to $2,000 a month for prescription drugs, it’s a dollars-and-cents issue.

“I left with my pension intact, because I took it as a lump sum,” she said Thursday, sitting for an interview in her living room. “So I worked 30 years to get medical benefits in my retirement, and now there’s a possibility that there’ll be a huge change.”

Which benefits — if any — are on the chopping block still isn’t known.

“As a part of our cost-reduction opportunities, we are engaging union leadership,” said FairPoint spokeswoman Beth Fastiggi. “In our discussions with union leadership, we are looking at things like future wage increases or opportunities to improve productivity.”

No decisions have been made yet, she said. On Thursday, union leaders met with representatives of FairPoint and its creditors in Boston.

Stone, 50, a member of CWA Local 1400 and a former chief steward, was a member of a group, Stop the Sale, that lobbied regulators in the states to reject the sale last year.

Now, she has no ill will for FairPoint, she says.

“They’ve been very positive, they’ve been great to the employees. They’ve done everything in their power to try to come through on their promises to the states, I can say that. I just think they got in over their head,” she said.

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