When Broadband Companies Hire Low-Wage Contractors, They Put My Life at Risk
New federal funding will expand access to broadband, but we need to make sure the job gets done right — by skilled union workers, not low-wage contractors.
Research & Commentary
March 02, 2023
I’m a proud Air Force veteran. But in the service, I had little to no say over the decisions made for myself or my team. I knew that when I left the military, my next job would be a union job.
Now I’ve worked as a union broadband technician for seven years. I get a voice at work and everything I need to provide the best service on every assignment. And I’m paid a quality wage for the education, training, and skill that I bring to do each job correctly and safely.
However, more and more of my job has become cleaning up the messes of untrained, low-wage contractors.
Telecommunications companies are hiring more and more contractors like these. They’re often paid by the job and get no health care or paid leave. That may save money in the short term, but these underpaid, undertrained contractors can leave sites with the work unfinished, or done in an unsafe way.
Companies aren’t putting those savings into product quality. Instead, many use those funds to buy back their own stocks, which just benefits wealthy CEOs and investors.
The downside of this scheme is that skilled union workers like me are often called in to clean up the mess. We get the brunt of customers’ frustration while we’re left with double the work — often at risk of injury, or even death, if the contracted work has not been completed safely.
Fiber lines are often located near gas, sewage, or electrical lines. When contractors fail to properly locate these utilities, or use the wrong tools when navigating underground lines, consequences can range from broken sprinklers to explosions.
In 2021, Congress passed a bipartisan infrastructure bill that includes $48 billion to expand access to reliable, affordable, high-speed internet service to all American households. As our country makes this much-needed investment, we need to make sure the job gets done right.
Cuington spoke on a recent webinar, “Public Money for the Public Good,” co-sponsored by Americans for Financial Reform Education Fund, Take on Wall Street, Institute for Policy Studies, Communications Workers of America, and United for Respect.
In the past, when companies have received federal funds for broadband deployment, they’ve often failed to deliver on promises to union workers and customers. These same companies would like to use these new infrastructure funds to hire unqualified contractors at a larger scale.
As a proud member of the Communications Workers of America union and a leader with our Broadband Brigade, my priority is to advocate for public investments to help working families.
That means making sure states use those federal funds to expand high-quality internet access to all and create good, family-sustaining jobs in the process — instead of making rich telecom and Wall Street executives even richer.
The Department of Commerce has taken a crucial first step by issuing guidelines encouraging broadband funding to be spent on projects that create good jobs for trained workers — jobs that are safe, pay a living wage, and protect workers’ right to join a union.
Now we need state and local governments to back this guidance by strengthening oversight agencies and setting high labor standards. When awarding contracts, officials could also favor companies that agree to not waste resources on stock buybacks.
These steps would ensure that as we build our infrastructure, we do so in a way that provides broadband access that is safe and reliable to all working families, regardless of their zip code.
The money going to telecom companies for broadband expansion is just a small fraction of federal funds going to private corporations. We should make sure all public investments benefit workers and their communities instead of just enriching those at the top.
Setting robust labor standards for all government contracts and subsidies would ensure that public money supports the public good.