After Hurricane Michael wreaked havoc on Florida last year, AT&T restored wireless service more quickly than Verizon because it relied on well-trained employees while Verizon instead used contractors that “did not have the proper credentials,” according to a union that represents workers from both telecoms.
The Communications Workers of America (CWA) made the allegations yesterday in a filing with the Federal Communications Commission, which recently found that carriers’ mistakes prolonged outages caused by the hurricane. Many customers had to go without cellular service for more than a week.
It’s not surprising for a union to argue that union workers are preferable to contractors, of course. But it seems clear that AT&T did a better job than Verizon after the storm. In the days following the October 2018 hurricane, Florida Governor Rick Scott slammed Verizon for its poor hurricane response while praising AT&T for quickly restoring service.
The FCC’s investigative report faulted carriers generally for not cooperating with each other but didn’t explain why Verizon lagged behind AT&T. Yesterday’s CWA filing attributes the difference to the companies’ workforces.
The union wrote:
To understand the differences between Verizon and AT&T’s Hurricane Michael restoration efforts, it is useful to examine each company’s approach to the deployment and coordination of personnel assigned to network restoration. Verizon relied on its contractor Uniti—an Arkansas-based, publicly-traded fiber company structured as a real estate investment trust to coordinate its recovery work. CWA’s frontline members confirmed working side-by-side with these contracted linemen, but were unable to determine if they were direct Uniti employees or subcontractors, because magnetic Uniti placards were oftentimes placed onto the sides of their work vehicles. Based on interviews with CWA members, it appeared that Uniti had relatively few employees in-house and was not able to quickly deploy a high number of restoration crew personnel. One AT&T technician stated that he did not see the number of Uniti lineman placing fiber increase until seven to ten days after the storm. In contrast, AT&T utilized direct, union-represented employees, which allowed the company to immediately source a well-trained workforce large enough for the critical task at hand. The same AT&T technician also stated that within 48 hours, AT&T deployed 40 digital technicians and a crew of 25 fiber splicers to critical sites.
Verizon has a company-wide disaster recovery program, which includes internal training, but the union said it “is unclear how or if contractors and subcontractors are integrated into these [disaster recovery] education and training programs.”
After the hurricane, Uniti workers initially could not gain access to AT&T facilities where Uniti equipment was co-located “because they did not have the proper credentials,” the union wrote.
“Technicians responsible for the installation and maintenance of telecommunications infrastructure should be highly trained and professionally certified,” the CWA also wrote. “Their work interacts with electrical wiring, utility lines, RF radiation and heavy equipment, all of which pose safety risks that require appropriate training, clear warnings, and strong protections for reporting. The existence of multi-layered employment structures can weaken employer accountability for ensuring safe conditions, impacting both workers and the public.”
Contractors caused explosions in WI and CA
The filing argues that Verizon’s “heavily sub-contracted employment structures that lack adequate accountability” caused problems in Wisconsin, where a firefighter died last year responding to an explosion triggered by a Verizon sub-contractor hitting a natural gas line, and in California, where a similar explosion was caused by a Verizon contractor this year. In Florida, the CWA says that union members observed safety hazards in Verizon’s hurricane-recovery work such as fiber lines sagging too close to the ground, endangering passing vehicles.
The CWA said it filed a public records request to obtain Uniti’s utility permits for fiber work in Florida.
“The utility permits do not list any subcontractors so it is impossible to determine if the network recovery personnel that were working on behalf of Uniti were direct employees or subcontractors,” the CWA wrote. “Without the ability to verify the use and identity of subcontractors, public agencies cannot confirm if companies have the requisite state licenses, and stakeholders cannot assess the contractors’ labor and safety record.”
The CWA said that wireless providers should be required “to pre-credential all relevant employees, agents, and third-party contractors… to help ensure that restoration crews are adequately vetted and credentialed by relevant government oversight agencies ahead of any emergencies.”
FCC still relies on voluntary commitments
We contacted Verizon about the union filing yesterday and will update this article if we get a response.
When the storm hit last October, Verizon said it suffered “unprecedented” damage to its fiber lines, which supply bandwidth to the wireless network. Verizon later told the FCC that it faced “challenges in repairing and maintaining fiber backhaul in the hardest-hit areas in Florida, coordination with electric utilities, roaming arrangements in the storm’s aftermath.”
The FCC hasn’t announced any move to punish carriers for the poor hurricane response, and Chairman Ajit Pai previously ditched regulations that were meant to protect consumers after disasters.
As we wrote previously, the FCC’s Hurricane Michael investigation found that carriers failed to follow their own previous voluntary roaming commitments, unnecessarily prolonging outages. The failure to comply with voluntary commitments meant that “[a]t least tens of thousands wireless customers had to wait days, unnecessarily, for their mobile phone service to be restored while their provider held off entering into roaming arrangements,” the FCC said.
Despite that, the FCC is still relying entirely on voluntary measures to prevent recurrences. Among other things, the FCC recommended that carriers “establish clauses in their commercial roaming agreements in hurricane-prone areas that would enable activation of roaming prior to a storm’s landfall,” and increase coordination with utilities and debris removal teams to prevent fiber cuts and other problems during restoration efforts.
The CWA argues that the industry’s voluntary commitments aren’t enough. In addition to the proposed pre-credentialing requirements mentioned earlier in this article, the union said that permitting agencies “should require that lead companies identify their subcontractors when applying for work permits.” Each wireless provider and their contractors should also have to submit “an emergency workforce deployment plan that outlines how the company plans to source and mobilize its highly-trained and professionally-certified workforce in the event of an emergency or disaster,” the CWA said.