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Imagine yourself disconnected from the world. Say you fronted on your bill and you’re left doing time without a phone. Finally, you gather the loot and call the phone company to get your social life back. They send over a seemingly legitimate techie in a nice blue shirt, and everything seems OK. Then, as the time slips away, you start wondering why it takes three hours to reconnect a phone—especially since you’re paying by the hour. When the technician finally leaves, you pick up the phone and hear something that sounds like a squadron of black helicopters before the connection goes dead.

Bell Atlantic has always been a beacon of efficiency in a sea of D.C. ineptitude, but after a wave of local cost cutting, the phone company may be joining the ranks of the unreliable. According to some Bell Atlantic employees, the company’s recent reorganization of job assignments means that the person showing up to fix your phone may or may not know how to make that happen.

Bell Atlantic technicians and union officials allege that the company is sending out undertrained technicians to service homes and businesses. These second-tier workers earn a fraction of the “core” techs’ regular wage, take longer to do their work, and create bigger problems that core technicians have to clean up, claims Joanne Bell, president of the Communication Workers of America (CWA)—the union that represents all Bell Atlantic technicians. She has worked at Bell Atlantic for 28 years, but she’s increasingly dismayed with what she terms a “get the money and run” customer-service philosophy.

The rookie technicians have an impressively long name on their calling cards: Bell Atlantic Communications and Construction Services Inc., or BACCSI. Unless you ask specifically, you have no way of knowing whether the tech who shows up at your door is a technician with years of know-how or a new hire who might not know a dial tone from a phone jack.

“What they’ve done is taken the system and service techs, the people who come out to your house and install your phones, and started a new job in BACCSI,” says Bell. “BACCSI people are paid less than what [core] techs get per hour. They have a high level of turnover, and quite frankly it just boils down to the fact that [Bell Atlantic is] not training them as well as they train the core people. The core people get about $60,000 in training in five years. The BACCSI people are getting two weeks of training and they’re sending ’em out to your phones.”

Bell Atlantic’s penny pinching likely has a lot to do with well-founded anxiety over the company’s future solvency. Bell Atlantic will soon be forced to compete locally with big, scary communications giants such as AT&T and MCI. But the company’s second-string lineup has sparked gripes all around. The core technicians object to losing work hours, and thus cash, to BACCSI techs, whom they see as undertrained interlopers. BACCSI techs resent the fact that they don’t get the same level of training or pay as regular techs, says Bell (whose union also represents BACCSI). And according to the core techs, the arrangement ultimately penalizes the customers, who get bilked by the hour for shoddy work.

“They are not top-notch technicians. They do not do the top-quality work that we do,” says one Bell Atlantic core tech, who asked that his name not be used. “They don’t take the pride in the work like we do. They go out and get the job done and they’re out of there. We, in turn, have to go back and clean up behind them. I’ve done it several times. That’s not top-notch customer service.”

Bell and other technicians claim customers have also complained about crappy service. Not so, says Bell Atlantic spokesperson Michel Daly, asserting that Bell Atlantic has received no specific complaints about BACCSI technicians. “We have not sacrificed service quality,” says Daly.

Bell reluctantly concedes that the phone company may not have received any official complaints, but she says the core techs she represents get an earful every time they go out to work on a mess made by less competent techs.

“What they do is just run those guys through a quick program,” says the tech, “and they stick ’em on the street and say go for it.”

Bell Atlantic’s Daly is baffled by the union’s sniping. He finds it “surprising that the CWA is taking potshots at its BACCSI employees, because those employees are represented by the CWA….It’s perplexing to us. They’re really taking shots at their own employees.” As for BACCSI’s allegedly high turnover rate, Daly says it is comparable to that of any other Bell Atlantic sector.

The civil unrest began at Bell Atlantic in 1995, when the union’s contract came up for renewal. Bell Atlantic informed union offices in some of its districts that it would begin using a new subsidiary to do certain work. The change pissed the unions off, of course, because a new subsidiary would undoubtedly cut into the amount of work available for core technicians.

At first, the unions were united in their opposition to BACCSI. Then the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) accepted BACCSI into its family. The defection of IBEW, which represents New Jersey technicians, caused a critical shift in the balance of power. “It pulled the rug from under us on that issue,” says Bell. “We had put up a big war not to have [BACCSI]. Once they accepted it in the house, it got down to either you will or you won’t [represent them], but they’re gonna be here.”

CWA reluctantly accepted the awkward role of representing BACCSI, a group whose very existence it had opposed, along with its regular group of core techs. “It’s not a marriage made in heaven,” says Bell, “but we have been able to help a number of BACCSI people with their training. Some of them have become core technicians. Others have taken their skills to competitors and gotten better jobs.”

Questions remain as to whether the city’s Public Service Commission is aware of the service problems alleged by the union. The commission serves as the public’s watchdog, regulating contracts and standards to ensure a minimum level of service from various utilities. Commission officials did not return calls from Washington City Paper.

From Bell Atlantic’s perspective, restructuring technical service and support simply allows the company to compete in an increasingly intense market. “Many of the companies that we compete with pay lower salaries than what we pay the employees represented by the CWA,” says Daly. “That creates a dilemma for us, because if they do pay lower salaries, that means they can offer services at a cheaper rate. We must now learn to compete with companies like that. We established BACCSI to do just that.”

For now, Bell Atlantic may be able to put the issue on hold. But the union’s contract is up again in 1998, and according to Bell it will certainly be a sticking point in CWA’s negotiations. In the meantime, customers who phone Bell Atlantic for help will be left to wonder who is answering the call.CP