from the do-not-pass-go,-do-not-collect-$200 dept
Most broadband providers saw a major uptick in both subscribers and revenue during the COVID crisis, as working and schooling at home exploded. But at the regional monopolies that dominate the U.S. telecom sector, revenue most assuredly didn’t go to employees at most of these major companies. In fact, Gizmodo has a new report highlighting how cable giant Charter (whose broadband and TV services are sold under the Spectrum brand) doubled its revenues last year thanks to COVID, yet found a way to dramatically reduce pay for its field technicians:
“Like countless other corporations, Charter amassed new pandemic-era wealth? $3.2 billion, nearly double the previous year. Charter did so, in part, by widely expanding its ?self-install? program, which it touted as a major ?cost-saving? measure. But contract workers say the ?savings? came straight out of their pockets through a systematic scheme to mislabel their jobs as lower-paying emergency fixes.”
Charter was widely criticized for putting both the public and its own employees at risk in the early months of the pandemic. Workers whose jobs could be done remotely were blocked completely from being able to work at home — despite repeated instances of positive COVID tests at the office (a stark contrast from Comcast). Meanwhile subcontractors complained consistently they weren’t being given the PPE necessary to enter consumer homes safely. The company has also come under fire for exploiting an FCC COVID broadband discount program to drive customers to more expensive tiers.
At the same time, pay dropped significantly thanks to a procedural classification trick. During COVID, Charter’s new self-install option reduced the need for an on sight technician visit, allowing the customer to connect and install the cable modem themselves. Inevitably cable technicians have to visit these homes anyway, either because the user screwed something up, or because there were inherent problems in the local building or block wiring that the customer couldn’t fix. But Charter used this opportunity to classify these visits as somehow less important than traditional installs, reducing subcontractor pay significantly:
“Under William?s contract company, a TV, phone, and wireless hookup for Spectrum would normally pay a contractor about $64. But the same job reclassified as a self-install pays around $35 through his contract company. He and fellow contractors sent their managers emails with photos showing that they?d done four or five hour jobs for only $35, but it didn?t change a thing. William said that he?s lost 60% of his pay since Spectrum took over his local market five years ago.”
For many years cable and broadband companies have distanced themselves from a lot of dodgy dysfunction by outsourcing work to third-party contractors. These companies are often dodgy as hell, and the employees are treated even worse than traditional contract employees, Gizmodo notes:
“Rob claimed that he lost his house and can?t afford to date because he can?t pay for dinner. He has to cover all of his own work expenses, which include surprises like a $2,000 meter that his company, which has a contract with Spectrum, forced him to buy, only driving him deeper into debt. That?s on top of the $300 per month for required liability insurance and the $8,000 to $10,000 in annual fuel costs. This summer, he couldn?t go to the hospital when he suffered heat stroke, a potentially fatal illness that can lead to organ failure. He worries that he?s one accident away from breaking down. ?I feel brittle,? he said.”
Most regional broadband monopolies don’t see enough real competition for the “free market” (which U.S. telecom decidedly isn’t) to apply any real pressure to do better. Charter union employees have been boxed out and are currently engaged in the longest strike in US history because they wanted better pay and health care. And because for the last 30 years the U.S. has generally operated under the idea that mindlessly deregulating U.S. telecom somehow produces near Utopian outcomes (it’s abundantly clear this isn’t true), regulators have largely become defanged and feckless. Then there’s Congress, which is so slathered with telecom campaign contributions as to be largely useless.
As a result, nothing meaningfully changes, and it’s not that hard to exploit a pandemic to grab more revenue without ever seeing regulatory or policy accountability.