NEW YORK — As the Verizon strike enters its third week, more and more incidents of replacement workers endangering themselves and the public are coming to light. Basic safety practices aren’t being followed as unqualified managers and contractors hang cables, place poles and operate heavy equipment throughout the Verizon footprint, which extends from Massachusetts to Virginia.
“What’s truly frightening is these unsafe practices would become standard practice if Verizon pushed through its plan to outsource work to cut-rate contractors,” said Brendan Haugh, a 20-year Verizon field technician who recently witnessed replacement workers committing multiple safety violations in the Bronx. “We’re striking to make sure Verizon has the skilled and experienced staff necessary to serve our customers safely.”
Many hazardous incidents have been documented, and the scope of the safety violations undermines claims by Verizon officials that they can properly maintain service during the strike. Union workers and safety experts worry that it’s just a matter of time before someone is seriously injured or killed.
“It’s very troubling that Verizon is sending out replacement workers who don’t know how to take the most basic safety precautions,” said Dave Newman, industrial hygienist with the New York Committee for Occupational Safety & Health. “The evidence shows hazards such as people stringing cable over roads without controlling traffic and equipment left unsecured in trucks that could bounce out on a highway and cause a serious accident. They really are putting people’s lives at risk.”
Union line personnel who perform potentially dangerous jobs at Verizon start their careers with an intensive month-long training course, receive specialized instruction for specific tasks, and then work closely with experienced techs for three to five years before they’re ready to handle all aspects of the work.
The union workers attempted to avert the strike by negotiating for eight months after their contract expired, but the company has continued to push outsourcing and offshoring plans that would devastate workers’ families and leave them without enough workers to properly maintain the Verizon network.
Verizon has slashed its workforce nearly 40 percent over the last decade. Workers say the company’s aggressive pursuit of profit — it made $39 billion in profit over the last three years — has come at the expense of both worker safety and customer service.
In 2013, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration placed Verizon of New York in its Severe Violator Enforcement Program following the death of a field technician in Brooklyn. Service quality has deteriorated to the point that New York State’s Public Service Commission has convened a formal hearing to investigate problems across the Empire State. In the last few weeks, regulators in Pennsylvania and New Jersey have launched similar inquiries into Verizon’s operations.
As the strike enters its third week, service problems and safety violations continue to mount. Some of the documented threats to worker and public safety include:
- Hazardous hanging of cable in North Tonawanda, N.Y. Replacement workers failed to control traffic as they hung a phone line across an intersection in the western New York town. The Niagara Gazette reported on the incident and noted that the line “was too low and a semi-truck was nearly unable to pass beneath it.” Vehicles snagging lines can pull down poles, and especially when those are joint-use poles with power lines it can pose a serious risk of electrocution.
- Unsafe access of a cross-box in the Bronx. Brendan Haugh, quoted above, witnessed two very poorly trained Verizon office workers unsafely access a small platform next to a cross-box, a unit that houses phone line connections. They failed to check for hazardous voltage, and then one worker climbed to the top step of a step-ladder, which should never be used to access such a platform, and pulled himself up by grabbing at a metal beam. When asked what experience they had, one of the white-collar Verizon staff said he did “I.T. work” in a Tampa office. The other said he was “in finance in Atlanta.”
- Hazardous pole placement in Laurens, N.Y. Replacement workers violated multiple safety protocols while installing a telephone pole at the side of a public roadway in this small town near Oneonta. They jeopardized the public by failing to follow standard Work Area Protection practices, neglecting to cordon off their vehicle with traffic cones. And they were in serious jeopardy themselves, said Laine Madison, a field technician and CWA member who’s worked at Verizon for 20 years and witnessed the Laurens incident. “We were so worried they were going to hurt themselves, we offered them advice on how to do the job right,” said Madison.
Customers are growing increasingly frustrated with the company with more than 300,000 people signing petitions in support of striking workers. At the same time, top economists and financial analysts have been raising concerns about the company’s short-sighted business decisions and the long-term impact of the strike.
Verizon workers, represented by the Communications Workers of America (CWA) and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), are calling on the company to settle a contract that ensures high quality service and saves middle class jobs.
Striking workers include veteran technicians and experienced customer service workers from Virginia to Massachusetts as well as Wireless retail workers in Brooklyn, N.Y. and Everett, Mass. Wireless technicians in the New York City area are also among the strikers.