CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A top official with Suddenlink says the cable-internet provider can’t find enough qualified technicians in West Virginia so they’ve had to hire out of state contractors.
Pragash Pillai is the executive vice president of operations for Altice, Suddenlink’s parent company. He dominated the testimony in Wednesday’s evidentiary hearing before the state Public Service Commission.
The PSC opened an investigation earlier this year after receiving thousands of service complaints from Suddenlink’s customers.
Pillai went into great detail about the company’s decision to hire contractors from outside the state instead of contractors from West Virginia.
“We brought a company from New Jersey. We brought a company from Connecticut. I would love to hire everybody from West Virginia, a contracting company that could do the work for us here,” Pragash Pillai said. “The reality is we are dealing with COVID, we have demand and we need staffing, and this skill-set is we can’t just hire anyone from any industry to work for us.”
Customer after customer complained about Suddenlink service during three public hearings last month.
“During a three-week period, I lost track of the number of calls I made to your call centers. I lost track of the number of minutes I spent calling and I lost track of the number of minutes I was on hold,” Maria Fore testified during a hearing in Charleston.
Similar comments came from Mingo County resident Dorothy Hatfield.
“I have called numerous times and while the representatives have been nice, they do not understand me. They just tell me they don’t know and the don’t know what to do,”
But Pillai testified Wednesday complaints at the company’s call center have actually decreased in the past three months. He credits a decision to give contract technicians fewer on-site visits a day to cut down on mistakes.
“When you have too many jobs, they were working late, they were working extra hours, you create a workforce that’s tired. What happens when they are tired? They make mistakes. What I did right away initially is to reduce the number of jobs per technician,” Pillai said.
He said on-time arrival has improved in recent months from a previous mark of 80% to 93%.
Attorney Robert Rodecker, representing the cities of Charleston, Beckley and Elkins in the case, called into question Pillai’s numbers.
“There’s been a whole host of testimony in this case by members of the public with regard to the length it takes people (technicians) to get out to perform the service,” Rodecker said.
He also questioned Pillai about Suddenlink’s decision to have fewer in-house technicians. Rodecker cited company information that it has only one company technician in Charleston.
Pillai called the document “misleading.” He said there are other technicians based at the company’s Shrewsbury office in eastern Kanawha County.
“We have other in-house employees from other areas can support that market,” he said.
PSC Chairman Charlotte Lane told Pillai she continues to receive complaints including some within the last three days.
“West Virginians are not getting what they paid for,” Lane said. “Our data shows that the customer complaints are on track to be more in 2021 than they were in 2020 and that’s unacceptable.”
PSC member Bill Raney said there appears to be a wide gap between what customers think of Suddenlink’s service and what Pillai believes it is. Pillai admitted the service has been questionable in the past.
“We want to be the premiere provider in the market. We have no plans to leave the market,” Pillai said. “I hear it (after the public hearings). It’s not pleasant and that should not be the service we are providing to our customers.”
PSC Staff attorneys have filed a document recommending 20 changes Suddenlink should make including:
–schedule appointments within 3 days of the customer call to the Call Center
–if a “call-back” policy is adopted, that Suddenlink ensure that it is working properly
–be required to modify its system as necessary to provide all subscribers the option of basic tier 1 (local channels and public television) to serve low-income families
–be required to use its employees rather than contractors to complete service and installation work
Pillai called that request unrealistic.
“If I tell you we can do that I’m not telling you the truth,” Pillai said. “It is just impossible based on ebbs and flow in work in this industry. There are periods of time when we don’t have enough work to keep (in-house technician) employees.”
Suddenlink attorney David Hanna told Lane at the beginning of Wednesday’s hearing that settlement negotiations had started on the PSC Staff’s recommendations.
“We have had some confidential discussions and they were quite productive,” Hanna said. “The company is interested in continuing those discussions.”