Kaiser sued by HIV+ employee
by Heather Tirado Gilligan
A longtime Kaiser Foundation Health Plan employee is suing the health care giant for harassment, failure to accommodate disability, and related charges.
Jeffery Sterman, an HIV-positive gay man who worked for Kaiser for 16 years and is currently on disability, alleges that Kaiser violated a long-standing agreement by failing to accommodate his medical needs.
Sterman, 51, filed suit last month in San Francisco Superior Court charging Kaiser with harassment, failure to accommodate a disability, discrimination, retaliation, failure to prevent discrimination and harassment, and five other related charges.
Kaiser invited Sterman to join its HIV/AIDS advisory board in 1992 after the company was accused of failing to adequately treat HIV-positive members of their health care plan. He was hired to work in corporate communications in 1996 to mediate between Kaiser and members of ACT UP, who were protesting the plan's treatment of HIV-positive group members.
"When I was hired they knew I was HIV-positive and a gay man," Sterman said. "I was promised at that time accommodation as needed."
"I think it was important for Kaiser to have an openly HIV-positive employee at the time," Sterman added.
According to the lawsuit, while he was co-chair of the advisory group, the board made many positive changes for Kaiser Permanente in San Francisco, including the creation of a charter that governed both providers and plan members and expanding access to experimental drugs and studies. At Sterman's recommendation, members of ACT UP were invited to join the advisory board, and some did in fact join the panel, the lawsuit states.
By 2007, Sterman said, his new supervisor was instructed to cut costs. She began denying him the assistance from support staff that allowed him to do his job, and had been a regular part of his position at Kaiser for 16 years.
His workload also increased exponentially, to the point where he felt like he was expected to work around the clock, Sterman said. When he brought these concerns to his supervisor, he added, he failed to receive adequate support.
"If positions need to be eliminated, [employees] have an option to move to other positions or out of the organization. Quite often, instead of laying people off, their jobs are made so difficult that they choose to leave," Sterman said.
He added that as a manager at Kaiser, he was instructed to use this tactic with employees who the company would otherwise fire or lay off.
Sterman thinks that his story will resonate for other HIV-positive employees in corporate America. Sterman, who is being represented by attorney David St. Louis, said that he is in the process of writing a letter to Kaiser's board. A case management conference for the lawsuit is set for October.
"This is an issue in corporate America," Sterman said. "Production needs to be increased, and staff reduced, and they target employees who can't always keep up."
"The attitude is, that this is the way that it is in corporate America, you work 24/7, and if you don't like it, then you can leave the organization," Sterman said. "They used my disease as a way for me not to be able to keep up with the pace."
"To me that is very disheartening," Sterman added. "This is a pattern not only with Kaiser, but with corporate America. I think people with AIDS and other chronic conditions are victims of that culture."
Kaiser issued a statement, "As a matter of policy, we will not discuss any matters related to a current employee, nor will we discuss pending litigation. However, Kaiser Permanente is widely recognized for its strong commitment to diversity and to sustaining a work environment that is free from discrimination and harassment."