Tough Luck

A flight attendant is battling a chronic disease--and Northwest Airlines

The $20 million Northwest Airlines has reportedly been spending to prepare for a strike by the firm's union mechanics later this month will be difficult to recoup in this brutally competitive deregulated market of airplane travel. Ironically, the company's desire to absorb the cost of a prolonged strike in order to roll back wages for its mechanics may explain the hard line it is taking toward disability payments for other segments of its union workforce. One case in point is the behavior of the locally based airline toward a chronically ill veteran flight attendant living in Maple Grove.

"Yes, I think there is a connection, and that this is tied up with other issues the company is dealing with," says LaRee Huff. "I can't think of any other reason why they would say I'm not disabled. My doctor can't believe it."

Huff has been a flight attendant for nearly 35 years, and became a Northwest employee when the company merged with Republic in 1986. In 1999, after experiencing bouts of serious fatigue, she was diagnosed with lupus, an autoimmune disease in which the body manufactures antibodies against its own tissues. After being sidelined for four months, Huff resolved to cope with this chronic--but not always debilitating--disorder, and returned to work. But on September 19, 2003, her condition was exacerbated when a large woman Huff was helping into a wheelchair grabbed the back of her head while falling over.

Stiffed? LaRee Huff has been battling Northwest for her pension and other benefits
Kathy Easthagen
Stiffed? LaRee Huff has been battling Northwest for her pension and other benefits

Huff hasn't flown since. She began suffering from severe back and neck spasms and tremors in her hands. All these aspects of her disorder have steadily worsened, to the point where she needs a walker to move about the house and a motorized scooter when she goes outside. Nine months after the accident, she was forced to sell what she describes as her "dream house," complete with an acre of land, in Fridley, and then eventually her car as well. She is now in a senior co-op apartment, relying on her daughter to do the grocery shopping. Tasks that used to take minutes, such as getting dressed in the morning, now can take more than an hour. At age 56, she has developed premature heart problems and memory loss. Huff also suffers from depression.

If Northwest's hardball tactics in the face of a looming mechanics strike have been grabbing headlines recently, the airline's treatment of Huff further reveals a corporate citizen that is less than benevolent. The federal government, for instance, deemed Huff's condition grave enough to warrant her receiving disability benefits under Social Security. By contrast, Northwest contested her right to workers' compensation four times within 18 months of her accident. Three times Huff prevailed. On the fourth, held last February at the State Office of Administrative Hearings in Minneapolis, the judge halted her weekly $672 payments because miscommunication between Huff, her attorney, and her doctor, failed to provide proper documentation.

Too add further insult, the independent medical examiner hired by Northwest seemed to question whether or not Huff even had lupus, writing in a report after Huff's accident that "at this point she seems to be nicely managed on her treatment if indeed she has inflammatory rheumatoid arthritis or lupus." The doctor added that "she is not permanently and totally disabled" and concluded that "probably on a part-time basis she certainly could do some type of employment."

This opinion is sharply at odds with that of Huff's own rheumatologist, Dr. Archibald Skemp, who was named one of the Twin Cities' "top docs" in a 2003 survey conducted by Mpls.-St. Paul Magazine. A month after the doctor hired by Northwest had delivered his findings, Skemp, who has been treating Huff since 1999, wrote in his own report that Huff's condition had continued to spiral downward since the September 2003 accident. At this point, concluded Skemp, "I don't feel she is capable of even sedentary work."

Northwest also has dug in its heels against Huff's attempt to secure a disability-related pension from the company. Huff was just 54 at the time of her accident, a crucial year short of the minimum age needed to retire with full pension benefits. Because Northwest has denied her disability claim, Huff will lose 55 percent of her pension benefits if she is not able to return to work and thus "resigns" from the airline before age 55.

"In the year and a half I've been on the job, I have never seen Northwest grant a disability retirement," says Kathy Dunham, the union representative for the Professional Flight Attendants Association (PFAA) who unsuccessfully filed a grievance with the company on Huff's behalf. "We've had one 'success' story. A gal who had cancer went through hell but got through her retraining and requalified for work and flew one trip after age 55 and got her full pension."

Defying similar odds seems unlikely for Huff. "I can't pass the retraining," Huff says. "I can't even lift a gallon of milk, so I certainly can't lift a 40-pound window exit, which is part of the training."

Attempts to contact Northwest regarding Huff's situation led to spokeswoman Jennifer Bagdade, who stated: "Out of respect for our employees' privacy, we don't discuss employee issues or matters."

Meanwhile, Huff is scheduled to meet with yet another independent medical examiner in September, whose findings will be included when she returns to court in December to try to get her workers' comp back. She is also going to court to challenge Northwest's denial of her full pension benefits. When Huff's workers' compensation benefits were halted in February, the long-term disability insurance policy (jointly paid for by Northwest and Huff) picked up a small portion of the burden at $518 per month. But that policy will come up for review in October. At this point her primary source of income is the $1,644 a month in social security--less than half of what she earned on the job, with medical bills looming.

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