FairPoint asks customers for patience during strike in northern New England

For the first time since workers walked out last month, FairPoint Communications is acknowledging delays in fulfilling customer service requests and is asking its customers for patience.

The company that provides telephone service and high-speed Internet service is working to eliminate the backlog of customer service requests and to mitigate the disruption caused when more than 1,700 workers in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont went on strike on Oct. 17, officials said.

Those delays were exacerbated by a snowstorm that dumped more than a foot of snow on parts of Maine. Another snowstorm was forecast for Thursday night and Friday in northern Maine.

CEO Peter Sunu expressed confidence Wednesday that the company can handle the work stoppage. But Peter McLaughlin, chairman of the negotiating committee for striking workers, said FairPoint was "clearly unprepared for the strike they provoked."

"FairPoint is proving that you can't maintain quality customer service while attacking the skilled workers who provide it," said McLaughlin, business manager for International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 2327 in Maine.

FairPoint declared an impasse in labor negotiations in late August and imposed a contract that froze workers' pensions and replaced them with 401(k) plans, and required workers to contribute to health care costs for the first time. Other provisions allow the company to hire contractors and eliminate retiree health care benefits for current workers.

The IBEW and Communication Workers of America accused FairPoint of violating federal law and asked the National Labor Relations Board to intervene.

The two sides will meet with a federal mediator on Nov. 18, a month after the strike began.

Company spokeswoman Angelynne Amores Beaudry described the session as "exploratory." She downplayed any suggestion that a breakthrough is imminent.

"To this point, neither party has changed the positions that led to the current deadlock and no assumptions should be made about either party's decision to attend" the mediation session, she said.

North Carolina-based FairPoint, which says it's the nation's sixth-largest telecom, provides telephone service and high-speed Internet in 17 states. It has about 1 million lines in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont.