Three weeks after phone strike Verizon backlog is still 5,000

Cell phones help, but some phoneless prefer the silence

September 16, 2000|By Mark Guidera and Rona Kobell | Mark Guidera and Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

Phoneless in Baltimore? Roommates Shaun Flynn and Matthew Welch have been these past three weeks, and it has made life, well, interesting.

They are among the thousands of Maryland residents whose requests for phone service got caught in the logjam caused by the 18-day strike by the Communications Workers of America against Verizon Communications Inc. The CWA and Verizon ended the strike Aug. 23 - more than three weeks ago.

But the telephone giant, the largest provider of local telephone service in the state, is still racing to catch up with service and repair requests.

For Welch, the manager of a local experimental music band, life without a phone in his apartment has meant numerous trips to nearby Penn Station. Amid the cacophony of the rumbling trains, Welch has toiled away on pay phones to keep up with bookings for the band.

Flynn, a Maryland Institute, College of Art student, has been using the phones in campus art studios.

The roommates' frustration ended earlier this week when Verizon installed phone service in their Mount Vernon apartment.

However, their friend Benjamin McConnell's frustration continues. His girlfriend still doesn't have a regular phone, and it costs 33 cents a minute on her cell phone every time he calls her.

Said Welch: "This has been kind of a drag."

A drag? That's an understatement, said Bita Amani.

A 21-year-old graduate student at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, Amani signed up for new phone service as the strike was winding down. She was told not to expect the installation until next week.

So, she's relied on the expensive cell phone service she bought for emergencies. But reception inside her North Baltimore apartment is fuzzy, so holding conversations with friends and family while at home has been at times maddening.

"They tell us there's nothing they can do unless we're on life support or something like that," said Amani. Her cell phone use is busting a hole in her tight budget, and she fears she'll have to lean on her parents for additional financial help if a traditional phone isn't installed soon.

Verizon spokeswoman Sandra Arnette said the company is working hard to reduce the orders for new service and repairs. The company, she said, estimates that it has about 5,000 orders in the queue, or about the same number as when the strike ended.

Customers placing orders for phone and other communications services are being told to expect the work to be done between Sept. 26 and Oct. 5. Customers with serious medical problems, or other special needs, are given priority for new service hook-ups, said Arnette.

As for customers who placed orders during the strike: They have been told to expect service by Sept. 30, said Arnette.

Before the strike, Verizon responded to a new service or repair order within four days, on average, said Arnette.

Many customers who called for new service during the strike were told not to expect service until December, she said.

That was done because the company had no way of knowing when the strike would end, she said. Those customers are being contacted either through their work or cell phones to get new hook-up dates, Arnette said.

"We have had some complaints from people tired of waiting, but we haven't been overwhelmed," said Arnette.

The Maryland Public Service Commission, which oversees utilities, said that it received 42 complaints this month from consumers for delays in getting new service. On average, the PSC normally gets about nine complaints a month about new service delays, said Robert Harris, a spokesman.

Not everyone has had difficulty getting new service.

Take Johns Hopkins University sophomore Aidan Smith and his roommate. They waited just two weeks for Verizon to hook up service, having applied Sept. 1.

"I was really surprised we got service so fast. I was expecting to wait much longer," said Smith.

While the wait for new service and repairs has been a frustrating inconvenience for some, many caught in the squeeze say they've turned to cell phones to keep in touch.

"Just about all the students have a cell phone, and I can usually borrow one to make a call if I'm in jam," said Daniel Wilson, a Hopkins senior who says he's been without a phone since late August when he returned to Baltimore to resume classes.

"I've actually enjoyed not having a phone in my apartment. It's sort of medieval. I actually go visit people I need to talk to."

Managers of large apartment complexes in the Baltimore area say the crisis seems to be easing. Late August and early September are among the busiest times for apartment turnovers.

"Last week we had about 10 of our new tenants without service. They were piling in here to use the office phone," said Sharon Joslin, leasing agent for Courthouse Square Apartments in Towson. "This week I haven't seen any of them in here."

Michael Rosen, chief operating officer for Town & Country Trust, which operates 25 apartment complexes in the Baltimore-Washington region, said his leasing agents report significant improvement this week in new residents getting phone service.

"Right now it looks like the waiting period for new service is about back to normal," said Rosen.

Jeff Dorsey, sales and service specialist for Maryland Telephone, a Towson company that manages telephone systems for commercial clients, said he's noticed that a bigger problem than the wait for new service has been inaccurate orders for service.

About a quarter of the orders for service placed during the strike must be reordered because of snafus, his company found.

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