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For GTE, Last Jan. 17 Brought a King-Size Public Relations Problem

June 24, 1994|DONNA K.H. WALTERS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

If you forgot, amid all the shaking of the area's strongest earthquake in three decades, that this past Jan. 17 was a holiday--Martin Luther King Day, to be exact--don't fret. GTE forgot that it wasn't.

In what has turned out to be a public relations embarrassment--and a billing headache of migraine proportions--the telephone company has twice backtracked on how it has charged customers for calls made the day of the 6.8-magnitude Northridge earthquake.

The upshot is that GTE's million or so California customers will only have to pay holiday rates--60% of normal--for calls made on that date, even though the phone company's tariff agreements do not recognize King Day as a holiday for purposes of rate discounts.

GTE discovered its error, it said, when a customer--of uncommon integrity, it seems--reported having been undercharged. Because of the extraordinarily high number of calls after the quake, the error cost GTE $1.5 million.

The company made a "business decision" to correct the mistake, a company spokesman said--but not until four months later.

Then many more customers called to question the mystifying adjustments that began showing up on GTE bills May 16.

At that point, the state Public Utilities Commission chastised GTE for violating a rule that prohibits back-billing beyond a 90-day period. So did state Sen. Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica), many of whose constituents are GTE customers. GTE subsequently decided to grant the holiday discounts after all.

Customers who paid the adjusted charges will be credited with refunds, the company said.

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