We Need to Reform Our Workplaces: 6 Areas to Start On

When the CEO of AOL, Tim Armstrong, blamed the medical needs of two employees’ “distressed babies” for company-wide cuts to the retirement savings plan last year, he provoked a national firestorm—and exposed a profound trauma I had tried to repress. One of those babies was my daughter, who had arrived so prematurely and inexplicably that doctors referred to her birth as “catastrophic.”

Girl In Glass Distressed Baby Shamed CEO Deanna FeiAfter I spoke out to defend my daughter, Armstrong apologized, and I forgave him. But then I received an outpouring of messages from women across the country who told me that they had also been shamed and blamed in the workplace for having a premature baby, a sick newborn, even uterine cancer—and their ordeals hadn’t generated any headlines.

They showed me that the controversy had exposed not only my personal trauma, but huge vulnerabilities that we all have in common. What  happened to my family was not an isolated occurrence. As corporate America continues a relentless drive to cut labor costs, those of us who rely on employers for health care–150 million of us–are increasingly vulnerable to the threat of having our personal health information used against us by cost-cutting executives.

[Do Emotions Have Any Place in Business?]

We need to reform our workplaces to protect ourselves from this growing threat. Here are 6 ways to start.

  1. Resist the tendency to treat women’s medical problems differently from men’s

Deanna Fei Girl in Glass Distressed Babies AOLWe’ve come a long way toward gender equality in the workplace—but we still have a long way to go. Preterm births, pregnancy  complications, breaks to pump breast milk, leaves of absence to care for a newborn in the NICU: So many women continue to write to me about being treated callously by their coworkers and bosses for these medical needs. Why do health issues related to pregnancy and childbirth tend to get singled out by executives? Why are they considered more optional than, say, coronary bypass surgery or treatment for chronic back pain—costly medical conditions that predominantly affect men?

  1. Safeguard workers’ medical privacy

CEOs have no business prying into the medical records of individual employees and their families–and yet this is an increasingly common practice. There’s a dangerous confluence of factors at work, including the spread of electronic medical records (which are easily transmitted and accessed) and the trend of companies choosing to self-insure (directly collecting premiums, paying out claims and amassing employees’ health data). With a few exceptions—for example, a pilot’s history of suicidal tendencies—such information does not belong in the hands of corporate executives. Health privacy is a basic civil right, and anyone who suspects a violation should be encouraged to come forward without fear of retaliation.

[‘All In’: How Our Work-First Culture Fails Dads, Families and Businesses–And How We Can Fix It]

  1. Don’t make employee benefits a zero-sum game 

It’s sadly common for CEOs to present benefit cuts as the only fiscally responsible choice–even when companies are posting record profits, as was the case with Tim Armstrong and AOL. In a robust, profitable company, there’s no reason why health care spending and retirement savings must be pitted against each other. A well-managed company should be able to take care of both aspects of workers’ basic security and well-being. And there’s no point in offering health benefits if you’re going to point fingers when people actually need to use them.

  1. Incentivize CEOs to produce sustainable profits—not to enrich themselves at the expense of their workers.

Deanna Fei Girl in Glass Distressed Babies AOLThe same year that my daughter’s medical bills supposedly imposed an outsized burden on AOL (a claim that health care experts have roundly debunked), the CEO collected over $12 million in pay—including a large bonus that was directly pegged to his cost-cutting. In other words, the real zero-sum game was between employee benefits and the CEO’s bonus. When we directly incentivize CEOs to cut employee benefits, we’ve created a system where the interests of corporate executives are pitted against those of vulnerable employees.

[Read Maria Shriver’s latest ‘I’ve Been Thinking’ essay]

  1. Be prepared for catastrophic claims.

There’s no question that my daughter’s care was costly (though Armstrong’s claim that he spent “a million dollars each” on those babies was wildly inflated). Caring for anyone struck by a medical catastrophe is expensive. That is why we have health insurance. A preterm birth is generally unforeseeable and unpreventable for any family. But at any corporation, it’s completely predictable that, in any given year, an employee might have an extremely premature baby. If a CEO wants to protect his bottom line from such life events, he can choose to have an outside insurance company be responsible for paying out claims. If a company chooses to self-insure, it’s standard practice to plan ahead for catastrophic claims by buying what’s known as “stop-loss” insurance (where an outside insurer picks up the tab for the highest bills) and by setting aside a reserve fund.

  1. Put more women in charge

I’m wary of gender stereotypes, but it’s hard to imagine that a female CEO would publicly scapegoat employees’ babies. All of the people who wrote to me about similar mistreatment were targeted by male executives, which suggests that part of the problem is a basic empathy gap among high-ranking men in corporate America. I would hope that any leader would be able to take a step back and think, What if that baby were my child?

About the Author

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Deanna Fei is the author of the new memoir GIRL IN GLASS, hailed as “extraordinarily beautiful” by NPR and “an impassioned, important book” by the Washington Post. GIRL IN GLASS was recently featured on Melissa Harris-Perry on MSNBC, PBS NewsHour and NPR’s All Things Considered. Her debut novel, A THREAD OF SKY, was named a New York Times Editors’ Choice and a CALA Best Book. Fei was born in Flushing, New York and graduated from Amherst College and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She has received a Fulbright Grant and a New York Foundation for the Arts fellowship. Her essays have appeared in the New York Times, Slate, TIME and Fortune, among other publications. She has taught writing and counseled at-risk youth through the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, CASES and New York City public schools. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two children. Connect with Deanna online on her website, community site ourdistressedbabies.org, Facebook and Instagram.

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