Just as the U.S. barreled toward 2 million confirmed covid-19 cases in mid-2020, Charter Communications gave a carefully worded pat on the back to its “employees” who kept the country connected in dire times. “They’ve been asked to go well above and beyond the regular duties and they’ve delivered easing the strain for millions of families,” CEO Thomas Rutledge said in a press release, which also cheered the company’s disbursement of PPE to its “employees.” For many technicians, who went from house to house during pandemic surges, the whole thing was a spit in the eye. These technicians are not Charter employees, they’re contractors, and as such, they say they didn’t receive PPE. Worse, the company effectively picked their pockets for profit under the guise of social distancing.
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.
Eighteen current and former contract workers, most from Florida, pointed to Charter subsidiary Spectrum’s self-install program, which allows customers to receive equipment in the mail and hook it up themselves, hypothetically saving them a technician visit. (This is now common across the industry—Comcast, Cox Communications, Optimum, and Mediacom all promote the kits.) People routinely opt for self-installs and can’t or don’t actually install the equipment. So Spectrum sends a technician to do all the work but labels it a cheaper “trouble call.” Techs often arrive to find equipment left unopened on the floor; when they try to contact Spectrum, there’s no way to get the job reclassified at the higher, correct rate.
“I want to say about 80 percent of the stuff that they mail out we still have to come and do,” Rob, a longtime Florida contract technician, told Gizmodo. (Rob and most sources for this story requested that Gizmodo use pseudonyms, for fear of employer retribution.)
By the end of 2020, self-installs represented 80% of all Charter customer installs, up from around 50% at the beginning of the year, according to the company. Charter notes repeatedly in its 2020 year-end 10-K filing that the program reduced overhead costs, and financials show that it saved $68 million in costs associated with installation and equipment. (A representative told Gizmodo that Charter has offered self-install kits in most of its 41-state service area for years, but that it introduced them in Florida in early 2020.)
The self-installs are the latest addition to a mounting pile of screw-jobs that have left the long-maligned “cable guy” in what industry workers describe as capitalistic indentured servitude. A Spectrum dispatch system that causes hours-long delays that force technicians to work into the night; thousands of dollars sunk into equipment, vans, and insurance; on-the-job injuries and life-threatening stress—a job that, they say, depletes their energy and savings until it’s impossible to take time off work to retrain for another career.
“I have bill collectors coming nonstop, I’m eating ramen noodles every night,” Rob said. He said that the “trouble calls” caused him to suffer a 30% pay cut last year—and over the arc of Spectrum’s five-year reign over the central Florida market, he said, his salary has plunged to less than half of what he’d made in 2016.
Several Florida-based contractors and recent contractors shared the same stories: loss of savings and homes, depression, and suffering health.
One contractor fell into homelessness. Because he couldn’t afford a vehicle, he said, he had to pay an extra $250 out of pocket each month to rent one from the contract company. Another former contractor, now in his early twenties, said he had a massive stress-related heart attack at age 19. And another had to leave his home and move in with family; he expects that he’ll never get the house back. Yet another said that he had to “literally take every penny that I had in the house to buy baby formula for my child.” And yet another reported that a fellow contractor was found dead in his car of a heart attack.
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.
In an email, a Spectrum spokesperson said that, in its “extensive experience,” it’s “highly unusual” for contract companies to forcetechnicians to buy their own equipment. They also said it doesn’t force contract workers to buy tools themselves—only that its agreements with contract companies “require them to ensure their employees have the necessary tools to perform the work described in our agreements.” (Independent contractors are legally required to provide their own tools, or else they’d be considered employees.)
“Spectrum took years I’ll never get back,” Rob said. “I’ve got one life to live, and I want to enjoy what’s left of it.”
“Self-install” is more than just a billing misnomer, contractors said—it’s often practically impossible for a customer to complete. Florida contractor “William” told Gizmodo that a self-install “trouble call” can involve up to three-hour installation jobs involving dropping new lines through the walls, installing outlets, hooking up a TV, phone, and wifi.
“They expected the customer to be able to crawl through their own attic, run a line, bury the line that’s cut outside,” he said. A Spectrum spokesperson said that it doesn’t send self-install kits to customers who’ve never had cable installed, but contractors repeatedly said this simply isn’t true.
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.
Multiple contract workers told Gizmodo that customers often lament spending two or three hours on the phone with Spectrum sales reps who insist that the customer can do it themselves. “Spectrum knows that they’re going to send out equipment, and we’ll just have to follow up,” William said.
Whenever asked about slashing pay for the same work, a Spectrum spokesperson told Gizmodo to talk to the contract companies, since they’re the ones who set the rates. “The company that employs them determines their pay and benefits,” the spokesperson said, “though we of course require that the companies we work with comply with applicable employment laws.”
That’s what the contract model does for a large company: It creates layers of liability shields by offloading employer duties to smaller companies. Spectrum benefits from obfuscation around the labyrinthian system that enables it to avoid paying for workman’s comp, damages to a customer’s home, a van that might cost $150,000 when fully equipped for contract work.
It’s common for the contract companies to pass on those risks and costs to even smaller contract companies, known as “supersubs,” which source the labor. So the money trickles down from Spectrum, to the contract company, to the supersub, which hands down a cut to workers.
This separation creates obfuscation. As “Charles,” a supersub owner and longtime technician, said, “There’s never really a direct communication between the bottom and the top.”
“Andrew,” a former member of a contract company executive team, told Gizmodo that his contract company long ran a robust dispatch team that streamlined schedules. If extra work came up at a job, the contractor could just call dispatch, which adjusted their pay and sent them to the next one. But that meant the contract company had access to Spectrum’s billing system. Now Spectrum runs dispatch.
“They’re the one that sets the rates, how the whole industry is paid,” Andrew said.
Spectrum doesn’t set the rates for each type of job. But it limits the amount of money that trickles down to contractors. Spectrum gives the contract company a lump sum; the contract company decides how much workers will get paid per billing code; then Spectrum assigns the billing code to each job through its dispatch app. Spectrum decides that installation jobs are now lower-paying “rescue” calls.
Meanwhile, Spectrum’s app makes it difficult to even get to the jobs, contractors said, chaotically dispatching them all over the map. It might send contractors on 40-minute unpaid drives between appointments. If a technician’s late, some contract companies automatically dock their pay in $25 “chargebacks” that their contract company will simply take from a paycheck. Or Spectrum closes out the job before they’ve finished, which they can’t finish because they’re on hold with Spectrum’s unhelpful technician helpline. Spectrum’s app might then take hours to send through another job, forcing the tech to extend their hours to make up for lost earnings.
“I’ll have days where I’m just sitting there for like four hours because I have a later job,” William said.
As a result, technicians meet pissed-off customers and endure jokes about the cable guy’s perpetual lateness. “The cable guy is just out doing a job,” Andrew said. “It’s the provider that causes the delay.”
Spectrum declined to share a contract company template agreement with Gizmodo.
Multiple technicians told Gizmodo that customers will also call Spectrum and lie that the contractor broke their TV or damaged their home, in which case the alleged expense comes out of the contractor’s paycheck. “You would be surprised what people will do for free stuff,” Rob said. “They don’t realize that when they make these calls that that money comes out of the contractor’s pocket, not a multibillion-dollar company.”
A Spectrum spokesperson said the company has “a process for investigating and resolving any claims of damage to a customer’s home or property during an installation.” Rob said, however, that neither his contract company nor Spectrum ever sends technicians any documentation to prove the customers’ claims. “It’s either you pay it or you don’t have a job anymore,” he said. “We all have damage claim horror stories.” One technician told Gizmodo that he never enters a room without the homeowner present and refers to valuables, like jewelry or cash on a table, as “liabilities.”
John Elston (his real name) started doing contract work for Spectrum during what was supposed to be his retirement. In 2011, he decided to work part-time for Kanaan, a contract company for Spectrum, to pay off his kids’ student loans and to add them to the company healthcare plan for W-2 employees.
“Well, part-time turned out to be 60 to 80 hours a week,” he told Gizmodo.
The pay was decent at first, he said, around $1,400 to $2,000 per week. Installation jobs paid base rates, which increased for additional services like running wires and installing modems, cable boxes, and converters. After two pay cuts, by 2014, he was earning $700 a week. So he extended the workweek to six days. Many of his co-workers quit, he said, but he stuck around to keep the health insurance. A paysheet from 2017 shows that Elston worked a 50-plus-hour week, during which he made a little over $700—averaging less than $14 per hour, before expenses and taxes. That excludes unpaid drive time, which, he said, could add 15 hours per week that don’t show up on his paysheet.
Over time, Elston said, Spectrum’s dispatch made it nearly impossible for him to even get to the jobs. He’d leave the house at 6 a.m. for a 9 a.m. job in the hopes of getting a head start, but then dispatch would stack jobs one after another, doubling assignments in the same time frames, leaving him on hold for 45 minutes with the technician helpline, sometimes in massive snowstorms, and he would not be able to get to the next job on time. If they dropped a heavy job at 6 p.m. far from his town, he wouldn’t get home until 12:30 a.m. “The second you leave your house in the morning, you are set up for failure,” he said. “Anybody that does this job better not have any kind of home life. I’ve worked 27 days straight without a day off.”
Elston said his blood pressure dropped drastically. On the day he got open heart surgery due to massive leakage from his aortic valve, he said, the contract company tried calling him into work. The healthcare plan which motivated him to stick with the contract company in the first place didn’t cover his monthly $500 heart medication. “Nothing with Spectrum was worth it,” he said.
Elston also deals with respiratory problems that put him at higher risk of a severe covid-19 infection, but he said the contract company sent him and other contractors to homes anyway, relying only on the customer’s word that no one in the home was sick. (Spectrum neither confirmed nor denied this policy when asked for comment. Elston’s contract company, Kannan, has also not responded to a request for comment.)
Around 2019, Spectrum stuck contractors with self-installs, which Elston called the “ultimate screw”—in his case, the contract company paid $15 to $19 for those jobs. If they’d been priced as technician installations, they could have paid $22 to $42 before extra services like switching providers. As was the case for every contractor who spoke with Gizmodo, virtually every job became a “rescue.”
Whenever he’d try to straighten things out with management at Kanaan, Elston said, they’d redirect him to the contract company’s parent company or the partner company, which held the contract with Spectrum. It was never even clear who his boss was; he worked for Kanaan, but his W-2 earnings summaries came from a company called Broadband Express. (None of the three have responded to Gizmodo’s request for comment.) By the fall of 2020, he averaged $400 a week; in one week, he made only $261, bank records reviewed by Gizmodo show.
One day in October, Elston said he went to three self-install jobs, all requiring him to climb up the cable pole outside and run lines to the houses. He left the company truck outside the office, called his brother, asked for a ride, and turned off the company phone. He never went back.
Decades-long trends show that the top earners in telecoms have steadily siphoned off larger portions of money from the share leftover for lowest-paid cable workers. Government data analyzed by the Economic Policy Institute shows that, from 1973 to 2019, the industry’s top earners saw a 161% wage increase, while workers in the bottom bracket saw a 12% overall decrease. The last few decades have been especially harsh for equipment installers, who saw an average 1.6% wage decline from 2003 to 2019.
Those workers’ actual wages are largely mysterious. Study co-author and EPI vice president John Schmitt told Gizmodo that contract workers are especially hard to track, due to a lack of reported data from both companies and workers.
The EPI ties this trend to the contractor model, which economist David Weil has called “fissuring.” Schmitt linked fissuring to de-unionization, which consistently correlates with lower wages. (The EPI reports that only 16% of cable industry workers are unionized, down from 60% in the seventies.)
“In this case, fissuring is about avoiding direct employer relationships that tend to raise wages for workers within a firm,” he said. “It’s a lot harder to discriminate against workers inside the same firm because they identify with each other and they compare themselves with each other.”
It’s unclear how many technicians have been affected by the Spectrum squeeze because Spectrum doesn’t count contracted workers as employees. But it’s safe to say “a lot”; after a sweeping consolidation of power by Charter, the company now offers broadband to one-third of the United States, claims to serve 29 million residential customers, and has made $48 billion in revenue. The Bureau of Labor Statistics counts 16,750 telecommunications equipment installers employed in Florida and a total of 190,000 equipment installers in the U.S.—though, as the EPI pointed out, there simply isn’t a comprehensive accounting of subcontractors.
Andrew, the former contract company executive team member, said that enforcing draconian penalties made him suicidal. So he rewrote his resume for the first time in nearly two decades. “I just hate to see what this industry has done to thousands of people that I’ve known over the years and what they continue to struggle with, and I know what it does to you mentally,” he said. “That’s why I left.”
Many who spoke with Gizmodo say they used to move from state to state to find better pay, some even moving every four to six months. But options are starting to dwindle as larger telecoms pick off the smaller ones.
Technicians in three different states working for different companies told Gizmodo that, while Spectrum is egregious, years of mergers and buyouts by cable giants have forced them to migrate across pay deserts. One former technician who started in Florida said he had to chase income in three states, between companies that had changed hands a total of five times.
A former contractor for Comcast told Gizmodo that he’s traveled to nearly every state looking for better work, and finally started his own fiber splicing company in pursuit of a more stable life. But given his limited savings from cable, he’s had to start the business hobbled about a mile before the starting line. He had to compromise for a $6,500 beaten-up truck rather than the $150,000 new models his competitors use and borrow a trailer that’s so rusted out he’s embarrassed to put his company name on it. “I’ll save money for a trailer, but then I’ll hit a dry spell for two weeks or a month and have to pull that money out to feed the family.”
“Technicians have nowhere to go,” Andrew said. “You may think the work sucks here, so I’m going to move from Florida and go to fill-in-the-blank. No matter where you go, you’re going to have to work for them again.”