Gold watch? Fountain pen? For 25th anniversary, AT&T guts MN workers’ sick leave

CWA Local 7250 members impacted by AT&T's sick-pay policy include Susan Anderson,

CWA Local 7250 members impacted by AT&T’s sick-pay policy include Susan Anderson (green coat), Dan Waalen-Radzevicius (black coat) and Deb Derke (red shirt).

Members of Local 7250 of the Communications Workers of America called a grievance strike yesterday. About 200 workers picketed outside AT&T’s offices downtown Minneapolis in support of their longest-tenured co-workers, who have seen requests for sick pay denied by the company.

AT&T claims it’s not required to allow workers with 25 or more years of experience to use their paid-sick time to care for family members – even though workers with less than 25 years experience can.

It’s an interpretation of a new state law that AT&T is defending in federal court. But in the meantime, where does that leave employees who have given a quarter-century or more to the Fortune 500 telecommunications company?

On the picket line yesterday, Debra Derke estimated she’s lost about eight months’ pay since her husband suffered a heart attack in August 2013 – the first in a string of major health crises. Derke’s husband suffered a second heart attack in March and is now paralyzed.

“We have a lot of doctor’s appointments that I need to attend. There are a lot of times when the PCA’s don’t show up. I’ve got to take care of him,” Derke said. “That’s my new normal. Every day I wake up to find out whether I can or can’t come to work.”

And though her contract says she has access to paid sick time, AT&T won’t let Derke use it to care for her husband, in effect, because she’s been with the company too long.

“It will be 30 years on Oct. 28, 30 years of my life supporting this company,” Derke said. “(AT&T CEO) Randall Stephenson hasn’t been there that long.”

Derke’s case is the most extreme, but other Minnesotans have filed grievances related to AT&T’s sick-pay policy as well.

Dan Waalen-Radzevicius requested four paid-sick days to care for his husband, whose injuries resulting from a stray-cat attack became seriously infected and left him drifting in and out of consciousness. Susan Anderson requested one paid-sick day to care for her husband as he began his battle against prostate cancer.

Waalen-Radzevicius has 29 years’ experience at AT&T; Anderson has 34. AT&T denied both workers’ requests.

“It’s absolutely ridiculous,” Waalen-Radzevicius said. “Our CEO made $20 million-plus last year, plus bonuses, plus trips – everything. And he can’t afford to pay us this minimal amount?”

CWA estimates only about 100 workers statewide fall into the gap created by AT&T’s sick-pay policy, but workers of all ages and experience levels walked alongside Derke, Waalen-Radzevicius and Anderson on the picket line yesterday. Divide-and-conquer tactics won’t work with this group, they said.

“Someday they’re going to be in our shoes,” Anderson said of less experienced workers. “It’s great they’re supporting us. It’s what unions are all about.”

Union members look out for each other, Derke added, just like family members take care of each other.

“It’s beautiful,” she said. “It’s so heartwarming to know I’m not alone here. We all work here, and we are family.”

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