FairPoint worker Jeff Dorn has already told his kids Christmas is going to be more about family than presents this year.
The installation and repair technician said his family knows money has been tight since he went on strike Oct. 17 along with 2,000 other workers who staff call centers and maintain the telephone networks in northern New England.
"They realize that the breadwinner isn't earning anything right now and they are helping the best they can," said Dorn, a 51-year-old who has worked for FairPoint in Maine for more than 12 years.
Hundreds of other FairPoint strikers in Maine and New Hampshire have been denied unemployment benefits, leaving workers to pick up other jobs or rely on support from outside groups to weather the impasse.
The North-Carolina-based telecommunications company imposed contract terms on the workers after it declared a stalemate in negotiations. It contends the old contract was out of sync with industry norms.
Unlike its neighbors, Vermont has determined that the strikers are eligible for unemployment checks and has processed more than 250 claims so far, said Annie Noonan, commissioner of the state's Department of Labor. Dozens more remain under review.
Noonan said her department examined state law and rulings from the state Supreme Court to determine that they were eligible for the benefits. Strikers can receive up to 26 weeks of benefits but must meet the usual criteria, including enough time worked in the previous quarter, she said.
Lisa Heisler, a 43-year-old FairPoint customer service representative in Vermont whose fiance also works for the company, got her first unemployment check for nearly $400 last week. The money has allowed them to catch up on bills that they pushed aside since the beginning of the strike, she said.
But in Maine, state law prohibits workers who are participating in a strike — and who stand to benefit from the outcome of it — from receiving the benefits, said the Julie Rabinowitz, a spokeswoman for the state's Department of Labor.
FairPoint has appealed Vermont's decision to give the money to the workers. Strikers are allowed to receive the benefits only if the strike is having an insubstantial impact on the company, said Angelynne Beaudry, a spokeswoman for the company.
The unions "have claimed to the State of Vermont that their strike has had an insubstantial effect on our business, but that's not what they're telling the public and our members," Beaudry said in an email. "We do not believe striking workers who have chosen to walk off their jobs should be entitled to unemployment benefits."
The company has also stopped providing health coverage for its workers in all three states. They've been able to continue their health coverage but must pay for it themselves.
Some of the workers are getting help from a strike fund that they've paid to. The unions have also collected more than $12,500 in online donations from the community and have received additional donations in the mail, said Don Trementozzi, president of Communications Workers of America Local 1400.
But even for those who are getting help, not knowing when the strike will end is making families anxious.
"It's a little overwhelming. The community has been wonderful," Heisler said. "But you really don't realize the day-to-day money that you spend until you don't have it."
Associated Press reporter Rik Stevens in Concord, New Hampshire, and Dave Gram in Montpelier, Vermont, contributed to this report.
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