ADELPHIA SCANDAL LEAVES DITCH-DIGGER IN THE HOLE
by Mark Scheinbaum
American Reporter Correspondent
LAKE WORTH, Fla., June 6, 2002 -- It's very late any Friday afternoon, and skin sweaty, shirts soiled, and bone tired, the Haitian-American laborers leave their worn workboots on the sidewalk outside of Dave McDermott's office.
The small Nationwide Insurance office which Dave has run for two decades in the strip shopping plaza at Jog and Lake Worth Roads reveals the nasty underside of the Enron, Tyco, Global Crossing, or Adelphia headlines. "These are the hardest working, most decent guys in the world. They are afraid their muddy or dusty shoes will mess up my old carpet, so they have always left their shoes outside," the insurance agent who grew up in a family of 18 devout Irish Catholics in Philadelphia relates. Many of these Haitian emigres are day laborers - literally ditch diggers - for a subcontractor of Adelphia Cable. The headlines tell us that the Rigas family which has allegedly mismanaged and self-aggrandized $4 billion in capitalization, is headed for big trouble from regulators, shareholders, banks, and bondholders. With Enron I always had the feeling that greedy people who could have or should have known better, kept getting greedier. In a nation where most workers have no company pensions or health coverage, Enron workers who saw a 401k plan soar ridiculously from $50,00 to $200,000 to $800,000 never thought it was a good time to cash in their chips, or show some personal responsibility and investment prudence. The ditch diggers don't get the chance to have such lofty disappointments. The Nationwide customers in question mostly pay their car insurance monthly. Well, that's unless they only have money to live hand-to-mouth and must pay weekly. Dave McDermott doesn't elaborate on how he manages to "cover" or perhaps "advance" money from his pocket to make sure that the monthly premiums don't lapse, since officially major insurance companies no longer allow weekly payments of premiums. "It just gets my goat that a hard working guy--not an illegal, not a welfare cheat, a guy who busts his back digging ditches for Adelphia is owed $700. He's leaving the next day to take his previous savings to Haiti to give to impoverished family members, and they keep stalling him about his money," McDermott told me. McDermott, an active parent and community leader, longtime youth services chairman for his local Kiwanis Club, and a decorated veteran who did hush-hush military intelligence work, has never considered himself a bleeding heart, and definitely not a liberal. He also knows something about hard work and decent treatment. His dad's Postal Service inspector's salary just covered the bills, yet every kid graduated from college. All working their own way through school. No handouts. His heroes are his dad and Joe Paterno, the legendary football coach of his alma mater, Penn State. "We made a few calls for this guy, and they kept saying that the contract hadn't been paid by Adelphia, so the ditch diggers couldn't be paid for another hour or two. Then it became a day or two, and well, the end of the week, and we still couldn't get any money for him," McDermott said. The story gets worse. Another worker, who desperately was trying to help his friend get his $700, reluctantly admitted that it was more important to secure the $700 for his friend's family than worry about even his own pay. "They owe you money also?" McDermott asked. "Well, now it's up to $2,400, but my friend needs money now!" came the response. A third worker who had been trying to help in a halting combination of English and Creole patois, was urged to tell McDermott about his own problems with Adelphia. The third worker alleged that Adelphia (the workers make no distinction between the levels of subcontractors and the cable TV equipment labeled 'Adelphia,' which they believe is the company they work for) has not paid him in several months despite repeated calls and complaints. The last total was $7,500 according to McDermott. "I asked them why they stayed on the job without pay, and the answer was so sincere, and so basic that it was hard to believe," McDermott said. The gist of the explanation as I understood it was to the immigrant workers, unfamiliar with U.S. labor laws, rules, customs, and very afraid of anything involving a complaint to police or government (perhaps the legacy of Papa Doc and Baby Doc's Ton-ton Macoute secret police), "a deal is a deal." They had agreed to work hard to dig ditches for Adelphia. It was regular work, and when they got paid they actually survived, so they felt it wasn't right for them just to walk off and quit. Being a columnist these days isn't the same as being a beat reporter. A story is just that - a tale, perhaps a fairy tale, until confirmed. Yet, I've known Dave McDermott for more than 12 years, and value his judgment. Still, I searched the Internet for stories of how Adelphia was concerned about its workers or contractors during the recent stock debacle. I went to their official Website and read only plaudits and platitudes about their services from security alarms to high-speed Internet access. I looked for the press releases, for the labor relations links, for the investor relations comments, for the apologies or calls for workers to be patient. I looked for an email contact who deals with ditch diggers. At some point I decided just to relate the story to you. Maybe it's something to think about the next time some politician wants to blame immigrants - legal or otherwise - for all the terrorist ills of America. Sometimes it takes the experience from Americans who struggled to get here from afar, to bring into focus blemishes and realities at home. They might have names such as Jean-Baptiste, Toussaint, Jolicouer, or Hypoluxo, and come from places called Furcy, Hinche, Jacmel, Port-au-Prince, or Cap-Haitian, but they have lessons to teach us. Funny, I never found one Haitian-American involved in the management of a savings bank that went belly-up, or in an energy-trading scam in California, or shredding accounting documents for a billion-dollar company, or, for that matter, building a private golf course with money from a cable company called Adelphia.
Mark Scheinbaum is chief investment strategist for Kaplan & Co., www.kaplansecurities.com