On tonight’s evening news, King 5 TV, our local CBS affiliated carried a story about a Microsoft worker who lost his job after being diagnosed with leukemia. Duncan Sutherland came forward after after seeing another report the night before about Ken Knightley, a Microsoft worker who is now being denied paid leave to undergo treatment for a brain tumor. Knightley told reporters that he was informed that his request for paid leave under the company’s short-term disability plan, was denied because at Microsoft links disability pay to performance reviews. When Knightley’s severe symptoms had caused him to miss work for medical care, he had been unable to fulfill some project deadlines. He then received a negative performance review, despite his excellent track record and promotions during his 11-year tenure with the company. His future uncertain, he now also may lose his home if he needs to go out on long-term disability, for which there is a 6-month waiting period. Sutherland shared that his own experience was similar, and King 5 reports that they have been contacted by other former Microsoft employees who shared similar experiences. Microsoft has declined to speak to the media, stating it cannot discuss personnel matters.
Listening to these stories was a déjà vu experience for me on an issue that still doesn’t seem to be going away. Fifteen years ago this month I was laid off from my job at a large private child & family service agency after being diagnosed with lymphoma. During several weeks of diagnostic tests, I’d re-arranged my work schedule in collaboration with my co-workers and supervisor. One of the administrators had asked me what kind of accommodations I needed, and I indicated my need for a flexible schedule. I took off 5 days for the first cycle of chemotherapy in order to rest up for returning to work. When I came back the following Monday, I was called into a meeting where I was told that my job had been eliminated , effective that week. I was not offered an exit interview, not given information on how to sign up for COBRA, nor advised that I was eligible to receive benefits from the disability plan I’d been paying into over the years. I was not allowed to either use or cash out my several months-worth of accrued sick and vacation leave, and I later learned that an request by my co-workers to donate sick leave to me had been denied by the agency.
I pursued legal action and had to endure a mediation session where the employer lied , claiming that they had no idea that I was sick and that the department that I worked in was being shut down and my job was simply the first one to be eliminated. The employer further claimed that this was part of a secret business plan that employees had not been told about, as we had been given a written document describing the expansion of the department. Although my attorney felt my case was strong, the Bush-era EEOC issued a negative ruling, saying that they could not second guess a business plan. At this point, my condition was worsening and the attorney urged me to settle , to avoid a protracted and expensive case. Later I learned that there had been agency employees at other sites who also had been laid off when they got sick. A memo was evidently later circulated expressing regrets that some situations may not have been been handled appropriately, and instructing supervisors on how to avoid future untoward situations.
Over the years I have met and heard of others here in western Washington who suffered similar treatment, including Seattle journalist Jeanne Sather who was fired in 2000 by OnHealth who had hired her specifically to write a column about her experiences of living with breast cancer. When a recurrence forced Jeanne to alter her work schedule, OnHealth let her go.
And even for those whose jobs are in workplaces required to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, the law is not much protection when employers use every artifice to get around the requirements, especially in at-will employment states like ours. Workers who even have sick leave that may become a source of contention are in a better position than most, as some 38% of US workers have no sick leave at all, according to data compiled from federal government sources by the Economic Policy Institute. The study found the ranks of haves and have-nots correlate along economic lines with only 19% of low-wage workers (mostly service workers) having paid sick days, compared with 86% of high-wage workers. While there is no federal or state mandate for paid sick leave, there is no excuse for the behavior of thriving mega-corporations like Microsoft who have chosen to offer employees benefits and then manipulate them in ways that harm their workers. These cases illustrate once again too what’s wrong with a system that links health insurance with employment.
For locals interested in this issue , the Seattle Coalition for a Healthy Workforce will be holding a town hall meeting on the evening of May 11 to discuss the needs of some 190,000 Seattle workers who have no paid sick days.