While FairPoint executives are saying that the 400 layoffs the company announced last week are related to "workload" and "competition," they're hoping everyone forgot that their business model — especially in northern New England — requires regular downsizing to have a prayer at success.
The North Carolina-based telecommunications company, which promised to create as many as 675 jobs starting in 2008 if it was allowed to buy Verizon's landline business in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont, is now getting rid of 375 jobs in those three states (and 25 jobs in other states FairPoint serves).
Back in 2007, the Portland Phoenix broke the story that FairPoint's business model contained several questionable assumptions, including that the price of gas for company vehicles would not increase for seven years, and that spending on employee salaries and benefits would stay flat as well. (See "FairPoint: No Raises For Seven Years," by Jeff Inglis, November 16, 2007.)
When that story came out, FairPoint's executive vice-president for corporate development, Walt Leach, called to clarify my initial assumption that FairPoint wasn't planning raises. Rather, he said, the company predicted that as many as four percent of its workforce would leave every year, and there were no plans to replace them. The savings from having fewer workers would provide enough money to give raises to those who stayed, Leach told me. (See "No Raises: It Gets Better," by Jeff Inglis, November 30, 2007.)
That's cold comfort for the 150 people whose jobs evaporated with less than a week's notice. Pete McLaughlin, of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the union representing all of the laid-off people, says FairPoint could have let them go the day of the announcement, but agreed to keep them on for a few days. Another 75 or 80 so-called "temporary" workers, hired by FairPoint to handle the transition from Verizon, hold what McLaughlin says the company calls "critical" positions. The temporary workers holding those jobs will stay on until permanent employees — another 150 of whom are also finding their jobs eliminated — are reassigned to take their places.
Temporary workers, who occupy roughly two-thirds of the jobs being eliminated, get no severance or other compensation for being let go. Adam Fisher, at the Maine Department of Labor, said his agency would be working with FairPoint to provide services such as career-center access and information about unemployment benefits and health-care coverage. McLaughlin said the AFL-CIO's "rapid-response" team is already involved helping workers prepare for their transitions.
The move has renewed criticism of FairPoint from labor sources. McLaughlin says many workers and organizers were quiet about problems they see within FairPoint before the layoffs were announced, in hopes that the company would find its way out of its struggles.
Now that it's clear FairPoint, which needed a federal court's protection to escape bankruptcy as a result of the terms of its 2008 purchase, remains in serious trouble, the critics are raising their voices once more.
"This company's been in a downward spiral," McLaughlin says, citing a "revolving door of leadership," and expressing concern that the company may never be able to emerge from its cash-flow problems.