Oregon Regulators Target U S West
SALEM, Ore. (AP) _ Oregon’s top utility regulator scolded strike-bound U S West on Friday for failing to abide by state rules that provide for a free cell phone or a $100 credit for customers kept waiting for an installer.
U S West contends those rules don’t apply during a strike and the company has refused to follow them despite the threat of $10,000-a-day fines and a costly lawsuit.
``I’m amazed that the company is more intent on fighting a legal battle than doing right by its customers,″ said Ron Eachus, chairman of the three-member Oregon Public Utility Commission.
Eachus estimated the service delays affect as many as 5,000 U S West customers in Oregon, and the company’s failure to remedy that inconvenience is a ``public relations blunder.″
Lawyer Larry Reichman, the lone U S West representative at a special meeting of the commission, said the company shouldn’t have to pay because the walkout of 2,600 employees in Oregon was beyond its control.
``We simply do not have the people to complete these orders,″ he said. ``This type of delay is caused by the strike.″
Reichman said he was willing to negotiate with regulators to find some middle ground before a Tuesday deadline, when the daily fines were set to begin.
About 34,000 U S West employees in 13 states walked off the job Aug. 16 in a dispute over mandatory overtime, performance-based pay and health care costs.
Regulators in other states say the service standards don’t apply during strikes.
But Oregon regulators, who imposed the rules on U S West after chronic service problems in the past few years, say there is no loophole for work stoppages. All the rules say is that customers must be compensated with the credit or the cell phone if U S West does not provide service within five days of an installation date.
Unless an agreement can be reached, U S West could be forced to start paying the daily fines beginning Tuesday.
General service complaints from customers have increased six-fold since the strike began, said commission spokesman Ron Karten.
At least 68 complaints were from customers who say they were unable to get new phone service and that U S West tried to sell them cellular service, rather than providing it to them for free under the rules.
``This is the ultimate insult to the customer,″ said Eachus. ``U S West is not only refusing to comply with the rules, they are trying to get the customer to pay for something the company should be providing anyway.″
Salem resident Karen Balsiger said she finally bought a cell phone for her 75-year-old mother after U S West failed for 11 days to deliver phone service to her new room in a nursing home.
``My mother is exceedingly dependent on the phone,″ Balsiger said. ``I got it for her the same day she said nobody loved her any more because nobody was calling her.″