PORTLAND, Maine — About 800 Maine-based union members on strike at FairPoint Communications will lose their health insurance coverage at midnight Friday, a move that increases financial pressure on them but that union leaders said they had long expected.

The policies ending Friday covered 100 percent of premiums for about 2,000 employees in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont. Conflict over terms of the company’s health insurance plan was part of the bargaining process that left both sides dissatisfied and ended Aug. 28, when the company declared an impasse.

The cancellation of health care policies is the first major financial hit since the strike started two weeks ago, but union leaders said the company is facing financial pressure, too, as it rolls out its contingency plan to manage customer calls and service needs during the strike.

Jenn Nappi, assistant business manager for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 2327, said union members prepared for the loss of health insurance and other challenges that would come from a strike by saving and, in some cases, taking other part-time jobs starting in the spring.

“If [FairPoint] thinks slapping their employees in the face by canceling their health benefits is going to break them, they are sadly mistaken,” Nappi said. “It was disappointing because they didn’t need to do it.”

Days before the strike, the company froze employee pensions. Both measures are part of the terms the company imposed on workers in declaring the contract impasse.

A spokeswoman for FairPoint, based out of North Carolina, said the cancellation is in line with federal law and declined to comment on what role it would play in the strike.

“Most benefit plans, such as medical, require a minimum schedule of work days to maintain eligibility,” spokeswoman Angelynne Amores Beaudry said. “When they went on strike, they became ineligible.”

Nappi said union members have a few options ahead, including continuing coverage through a provision in a federal law called COBRA, which allows employees to continue receiving health benefits through their employer but could require them to pay the entire premium for the plan.

The other option is going to federal health care exchanges created by the Affordable Care Act, which Nappi said she anticipates will be less expensive than COBRA coverage. Nappi said the unions also have collected thousands of dollars through local fundraising, a separate online crowdfunding campaign and a statewide fundraiser through the AFL-CIO to aid workers on strike.

Nicole Johnston, a mobilizer with Communications Workers of America Local 1400 in Bangor, said Friday the loss of coverage leaves some members, especially those with children, concerned about medical expenses in the interim.

“I know there are other plans out there, and I think people are looking into those,” she said.

For Johnston, the loss of coverage has a personal history, as her mother is a 22-year veteran of FairPoint and the various predecessor telephone companies and the union.

“I grew up with these benefits — the same benefits I was able to offer to my children,” Johnston said.

While health benefits were part of the contention between the unions and workers, negotiations also focused on a range of problems most easily quantified in one big number: $500 million.

Union leaders said they presented plans to cut about $218 million in FairPoint’s annual costs and the company’s proposal asked to cut more than $700 million, including a shift to health plan options that lead negotiator Pete McLaughlin characterized in an earlier interview when he said “there’s a bad plan and there’s a worse plan.”

Beaudry said the company’s proposal would have covered about 79 percent of premiums. McLaughlin said deductibles on those plans left members with the possibility of high out-of-pocket costs.

But a central issue in the talks was whether the company could hire contract workers for specific jobs, which the unions viewed as a core problem that dealt not with benefits but overall job security.

The tension over health plans comes as the company adjusts to doing business without its unionized workers.

How that is going is difficult to quantify.

Nappi said she has heard estimates that the company’s call centers are backed up responding to customer calls. Beaudry questioned the claim.

“I don’t know where they’re hearing that from,” Beaudry said. “We’re ramping up contingency plans and continuing to do so, and we appreciate our customers’ patience during this time as our temporary workforce responds to our customer needs under these conditions.”

The company last week said it was experiencing an unusually high volume of calls, with many that “appear[ed] to be computer-generated,” but it did not outright accuse union officials of jamming its phones.

The Maine Public Utilities Commission regulates most of FairPoint’s landline phone service along certain quality measures, but the reports are submitted quarterly and won’t be submitted until January for the last three months of this year. The latest report, filed earlier this month, covers through the end of September, before the strike began.

If telephone service quality suffers during the strike, the company faces financial penalties at the end of the quarter. The company fought such requirements earlier this year for a group of 29,000 customers in areas where FairPoint is required to provide service.

Last week, PUC spokesman Harry Lanphear said the number of calls to the PUC regarding FairPoint increased to about 25, but he said most of those callers had not yet sought to resolve their issue with FairPoint, which the PUC requires before taking a formal complaint. In total, Lanphear said the company has taken three formal complaints about the company since Oct. 17.

Donna Gravely, a FairPoint landline customer in Dexter, may have been among those complainants. Gravely contacted the Bangor Daily News earlier this month after she was unable to reach someone at a residential customer service line at 1-866-984-2001.

Gravely said she and her husband are moving out of their home next week and sought to cancel their service. She had given up on holding on multiple occasions — waiting more than 30 minutes, she said — until she finally got through earlier this week.

“After 38 minutes, I finally got an answer. And I was told by the respondent that the system had crashed and there was nothing they could do to help me,” Gravely said. “Then she said, ‘Hold on a moment,’ and then she disconnected me. That was the living end.”

Another FairPoint Internet customer, John Barron, contacted the Bangor Daily News by phone Friday after reading an earlier report in the paper. He said his Internet has been out since Oct. 21, an uncharacteristically long time for the service he said previously had minor outages during storms.

Barron said after calling customer service twice last week, he received an automated phone call Saturday.

“On Saturday, I got a robocall saying they don’t know what’s wrong with it and are not sure when it will be fixed,” Barron said. “On Tuesday, I got another robocall, and then that’s the last I heard from them.”

Barron said he’s been using a mobile hotspot in the meantime and, while he runs a business from his home, he doesn’t depend on the service for his livelihood.

“But if I did, I would be out,” Barron said.

Darren Fishell

Darren is a Portland-based reporter for the Bangor Daily News writing about the Maine economy and business. He's interested in putting economic data in context and finding the stories behind the numbers.