Originally created 08/29/98

Oregon regulators take aim at strike-bound U S West



SALEM, Ore. -- Oregon regulators are demanding that strike-bound U S West abide by consumer protection rules that provide for a free cellular phone or a $100 credit for customers who are kept waiting for an installer.

U S West maintains it shouldn't have to comply during a strike, but the regulators called a special meeting Friday to threaten the telephone company with $10,000-a-day fines and court action if it doesn't.

"If there is no compromise, then there is no place to go but court," said Oregon Public Utility Commission spokesman Ron Karten.

U S West spokesman Jim Haynes said the company also wants to avoid a court battle, but doesn't believe it should be made to pay when 2,600 employees are on strike in Oregon.

"We want to provide service," Haynes said, "But we have considerable challenges right now, with the vast majority of our workers out on strike."

About 34,000 U S West employees in 13 states walked off the job Aug. 16 in a dispute over mandatory overtime, performance-based pay and health care costs.

Regulators in other states say the service standards don't apply during strikes.

But Oregon regulators, who imposed the rules on U S West after chronic service problems in the past few years, say there is no loophole for work stoppages. All the rules say is that customers must be compensated with the credit or the cell phone if U S West does not provide service within five days of an installation date.

Unless an agreement can be reached, U S West could be forced to start paying the daily fines beginning Sept. 1.

Karten said general service complaints from customers have increased six-fold since the strike began.

At least 80 complaints were from customers who say they were unable to get new phone service and that U S West tried to sell them cellular service, rather than providing it to them for free under the rules.

"This is the ultimate insult to the customer," said Ron Eachus, chairman of Oregon's utility commission. "U S West is not only refusing to comply with the rules, they are trying to get the customer to pay for something the company should be providing anyway."

Salem resident Karen Balsiger said she finally bought a cell phone for her 75-year-old mother after U S West failed for 11 days to deliver phone service to her new room in a nursing home.

"My mother is exceedingly dependent on the phone," Balsiger said. "I got it for her the same day she said nobody loved her any more because nobody was calling her."