AUGUSTA, Maine — As power companies finish restoring electricity to the more than 100,000 Mainers who lost it during the Nov. 2 snowstorm, some FairPoint customers say they are still waiting to get a response from the telecommunications firm about their service outages.
In response, FairPoint is asking its customers to remain patient while it simultaneously negotiates with striking workers and tries to address the service problems.
In the nearly four weeks since FairPoint workers went on strike, there has been an increase in the number of calls and formal complaints state utility regulators have received about the telecommunications company, according to Harry Lanphear, spokesman for Maine Public Utilities Commission.
Even so, the higher volume of customer calls and complaints about FairPoint is not considered to be very high, Lanphear said Wednesday.
The PUC typically receives five to 10 complaints a week about the North Carolina-based company, which acquired Verizon’s land line network in northern New England in 2008, according to Lanphear. In the final week of October, he said, the commission received 66 calls about FairPoint; last week, after the Nov. 2 storm, it received 45.
“The number of calls related to Fairpoint have gone up, but it’s not a huge number,” Lanphear said. “We take hundreds of calls [about all utilities] each week.”
Since FairPoint workers went on strike on Oct. 17, Lanphear said, the PUC has received only three formal complaints about the company. Formal complaints are different from calls, he said, because they are filed in writing after a utility company has been given adequate time to address a particular issue.
Tim Schneider, who serves as the state’s public advocate, said his office, which is separate from the PUC, has noticed a “real uptick” in the number of calls about FairPoint service in the past month. Before the strike, the public advocate’s office may have received five calls a month about the company. Now, he added, it gets about three to five a calls a day.
“We are very, very concerned about FairPoint’s ability to restore service post-storm,” Schneider said. “It doesn’t bode well for the winter.”
Schneider said he is not sure whether the increase in the number of calls is a result of the strike, but he is assuming there is a correlation because of the timing. He said state officials will learn more about the scope and nature of FairPoint’s service issues when the company files its next quarterly report with the PUC in January.
On Wednesday, there still were storm-related power outages for Emera Maine customers in the Blue Hill Peninsula area of Hancock County, though the number had been reduced to fewer than a dozen by the afternoon, according to information posted on the Emera website. Central Maine Power has no outages remaining related to the storm, according to spokeswoman Gail Rice.
Some FairPoint customers have said they have not seen or heard from the telecom firm since they lost phone service early last week.
Brooksville resident Nancy Allen said Wednesday that since she lost phone service in the storm, she has repeatedly walked to her sister’s house down the road to try to contact FairPoint. She said she has talked to call center employees once or twice but has yet to hear from a technician.
“We got our power back Wednesday night [Nov. 5],” she said. “I’ve called FairPoint just about every day.”
Allen said she works as a research assistant online but hasn’t been able to work because of the lack of phone and Internet service. Several of her neighbors also were without phone service for several days, she added, but have since gotten it back — kind of. It has gone out and then come back again for them a few times, she said.
“It hasn’t been consistent,” Allen said.
Ellsworth resident Shirley Smith wrote in a letter to the Bangor Daily News that she also lost power in the storm and that Emera restored it on Nov. 5. She added she has tried to call FairPoint’s repair line “numerous times” but has been unable to get through to anyone.
“Phone lines have been down here and are still laying in the ditches on this road,” Smith wrote. “We all know they are on strike. Do they have any line crews working on this widespread problem? I have not seen a single FairPoint truck anywhere in this whole area.”
Attempts on Wednesday to contact Smith directly were unsuccessful.
FairPoint spokeswoman Angelynne Beaudry said Wednesday the company has experienced a higher level of complaints since Oct. 17, when the strike began. She acknowledged that the company’s call service center and its technical response crews have been affected by the strike.
“Our customer call center was overloaded,” she said, adding that FairPoint still is adding to its contingency workforce. About 10 to 15 percent of the calls to its service center, she added, were automated “robocalls” that aggravated the backlog.
Managers, non-union employees and other temporary workers have been filling in and receiving training as needed, she said. When the Nov. 2 storm hit, it complicated those efforts. The company needed to prioritize its response by dealing first with critical infrastructure and high-volume areas, she said.
Beaudry declined to comment on the number of service calls it has received or the size of its contingency workforce.
“We appreciate our customers’ patience,” she said. “We’re working as diligently as we can.”
How long the strike might last is unknown, but the two sides are expected to resume negotiations next week, when they meet with a federal mediator in Boston.