In August 2013 Deb Derke was getting ready to leave for a week-long vacation in Nashville when she heard her husband Kyle hit the ground with a loud thump.
Kyle had suffered a heart attack, and shortly afterward he had a stroke that paralyzed the left side of his body. Since then Derke, who has been employed by AT&T for 29 years, missed more than 500 hours of work to be with her husband during the long recovery.
"I spent that whole week of vacation to be with him in the ICU, and then after that I told [AT&T] I needed more time off. He was in critical care; I couldn't just leave him," she said.
Derke was relieved when she heard about a new Minnesota law that made her eligible to use up to 160 hours of her own paid sick time to take care of Kyle.
Unfortunately, AT&T says the new law doesn't apply to her because of a loophole in how it was written.
Here's AT&T's logic, according to the several employees affected by AT&T's decision, the union representing them, and internal documents obtained by the City Pages:
The law says employees may use their "accrued and available" paid sick time to care for family members. Since AT&T employees with 25 years or more with the company have unlimited paid sick time they are no longer accruing it, and therefore the law does not apply to them.
"I know, it doesn't really make sense does it?" said Don Waalen-Radzevicius, a 27-year veteran of AT&T who works with Derke on the 11th floor of the AT&T Tower downtown.
"Their interpretation of the law is that we are no longer accruing sick time, so therefore the law doesn't apply...because of that phrase: 'available and accrued.'"
Waalen-Radzevicius lost four days' pay when his husband came down with a serious infection earlier this year.
"That's when it became personal," he said after rallying with Derke and dozens of other employees outside of the AT&T Tower last week.
When asked for clarification AT&T sent a statement that pointed out employees with 25 years or more of experience already have a wide variety of different ways to take time off, but it never addresses whether its policy of denying this new benefit to its longest-serving employees is legal:
"We are one of the country's largest employers and provide excellent pay and benefits to our employees and dependents, including paid time off and paid illness benefits. Under our applicable collective bargaining agreement, we offer eligible employees a range of paid time off options including vacation and other paid days off (personal days, floating holidays) as well as personal illness time. They also have available unpaid FMLA time and Family Care Leave.
"The union is referring to employees with 25 years of service or more who, under the collective bargaining agreement, can take paid time as needed for their own sickness - there is no cap or limit. They also have FMLA time and Family Care Leave, short term and long term disability benefits, five weeks of paid vacation, three paid floating Holidays, four Excused Work Days with pay and one without pay. We believe employees with more than 25 years of service can use these options to care for sick or injured relatives rather than the uncapped paid personal illness days. We are working with the union through our established grievance procedure to resolve our disagreement.
In July the state Department of Labor and Industry sent a letter to AT&T ordering it to comply with the law.
Kieran Knutson, vice president of Communications Workers of America Local 7250, says at least seven longtime AT&T employees have been denied sick pay after taking time off to care for relatives. Employees with under 25 years of experience have had no problem benefiting from the law.
"One day my son suffered a concussion from playing soccer, so I had to go pick him up from school and take care of him, and I got paid for that time, because I only have 11 years with the company," said Knutson.
"The strongest argument is just plain common sense. If somebody that has less than 25 years has a right to this legal benefit, then somebody with more seniority certainly should also have access to it," said Knutson.
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