Verizon threatens to stop paying worker healthcare benefits

Verizon said it plans to stop paying for striking workers' healthcare coverage if they fail to return to work at the end of the month as the work stoppage entered day 11 on Wednesday.

"If our striking employees aren't serving our customers, our customers shouldn't be expected to pay their benefits," Verizon spokesman Ed McFadden told The Hill. "That's basically our philosophy on why we sent the letters out. It's our customers who pay their benefits."

Communications Workers of America spokeswoman Candice Johnson denounced the move as a "scare tactic" and said the union is prepared to either pay for workers' coverage or find alternatives to ensure that families' needs are met.

She said talks are ongoing in New York and Philadelphia but Verizon has yet to demonstrate it is serious about negotiating a new labor contract. McFadden said the fact talks have been taking place for over a week is an indication they are progressing.

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The union argues Verizon is a profitable firm trying to cut organized workers' compensation by $20,000 per year; Verizon says it is simply asking unionized employees to contribute to their rising healthcare costs in the same manner as non-union workers.

In addition, most of the striking workers are from Verizon's legacy wireline business, which has seen profits drop in recent years. The union notes those workers also lay the fiber optic cable for high-speed broadband and video and provide the backbone for Verizon's wireless network.

The strike has turned ugly at times, with Verizon claiming its networks have undergone more than 150 instances of sabotage since the strike began, while Johnson said 40 workers have been injured on the picket line, many by vehicles driven by Verizon employees. She reiterated the union's opposition to violence or any illegal acts.

McFadden said Verizon was required to give notice under the contract signed in 2008 that it would stop paying for workers' healthcare if they chose to walk off the job. He noted the cost of paying for COBRA coverage would greatly exceed the concessions Verizon is requesting as part of negotiations.