Late last month, a story in the TH stunned me with its tale of human cruelty. Its setting was not a bombed city in the Mideast, or a flooded island south of the equator. It took place in Iowa, in an office. You can probably picture it: coworkers tapping at computers in cubicles, chatting in the hallway, gathering for lunch in the break room.
The workplace in this story, reported by the Associated Press, is the Coralville branch of Sedgwick Claims Management, a company that administers benefits for Wal-Mart employees. The work is probably tedious at times, but relieved by the relationships people form at work, where we learn just enough about each other to keep the daily labor tolerable, even fun. Such camaraderie is what retirees miss most, even more than the free photocopies.
This is why the newspaper story about 32-year-old Alexandra Avila, a U.S. citizen born to parents who immigrated from Mexico, was such a shock. Her coworkers might say “she started it” when she objected to Donald Trump’s labeling all Mexican immigrants as drug runners, criminals, and rapists. He seemed to give permission for them to become unrestrained bullies.
Imagine finding your screensaver, on which you’d posted a picture of your little girl, changed to a photo of an angry Trump pointing his finger. Imagine changing it back, and having it happen again. Imagine hearing racist jokes that demean you and your family. Imagine your work “friends” gleefully signing you up for emails from the Trump campaign. Consider how you would feel when, as others planned a company potluck, you’re told you can’t participate because you are an “illegal,” drawing laughter from your boss.
Finally, imagine your company retaliating, after you brought these incidents to their attention, responding not by disciplining your harassers and offering you support but by falsely accusing you of fudging your timesheet and firing you. Think how it would feel if your company joined the side of the bullies, mailing your belongings home in a package containing a nasty note reading “Illegal immigrants can’t vote or work. Good luck finding a job.”
On its website, Sedgwick highlights this trademarked claim: “Taking care of people is at the heart of everything we do. Caring counts,” and goes on to note that every year, their people “take care of the needs of more than 2.6 million who had something unexpected happen.” Would that include this mistreated woman? Their site goes on to boast of impressive core values, mission, and diversity with such blithe pride it takes my breath away:
“When it comes to diversity at Sedgwick, our focus is on uniqueness: our colleagues knowing they are respected and valued for who they are. Inclusion at Sedgwick is about belonging: ensuring that every one of our colleagues understands their role in the success of their team, our clients and the organization as a whole.” (Those are Sedgwick’s italics.)
Sedgwick owes this woman a public apology. It should not take a lawsuit to teach people how to act. The company should be required to undergo mandatory staff education, and to issue progress updates. They should vow to serve as a role model for turning around a toxic workplace. Other companies that have let such behavior occur should recognize and address it as well. Value statements should not be mere window dressing.
Maybe the lawsuit will be a learning opportunity for Sedgwick, and for other companies where value statements are ignored and bullying goes on unchecked. Maybe management at the Coralville office will be held accountable – and fired – and the employees who carried out their reign of terror will be disciplined.
Many of us were stunned by the success of the candidate who missed no opportunity to ridicule and scorn millions of American citizens who did not meet his standards – war heroes who were captured, the media, women, Latinx and Hispanic people, African-Americans, American Muslims, people with physical handicaps, anyone not a “10,” anyone LGBTQA+. Perhaps his insults were easy to dismiss in mostly white, mostly Christian Dubuque. Maybe it was easy to forget, somehow, his insults of the Pope (“disgraceful”), and how he asked, after failing to win our caucus, “How stupid are the people of Iowa?”
People tend to throw up their hands when large numbers of people need support. The enormity of the populations he mocked and vilified – not to mention those whom he assaulted, failed to pay, or sued for no good reason – may have been so large as to make us feel we could not help in any way. How can I keep 11 million illegal citizens from deportation to Mexico? How can I protect Muslims who are just as kind and peace-loving as I am? What can I possibly do to protect all the girls who hear, from high places, that beauty means more than brilliance?
Journalist Nicholas Kristof has noted this dilemma: “People are less willing to contribute to a fund to save kids from cancer if the same amount of money is going to save not one life but eight lives.” Instead we feel overwhelmed, not even giving money to charities that will do the hard work for us, supporting the poor, the handicapped, the refugee with no place else to turn.
So here is one person you can help. If even that seems too hard, then help one person. Send a note of support to Alexandra Avila in care of the law firm representing her: Fiedler & Timmer, 8831 Windsor Parkway, Johnston, IA 50131. Say something nice. Send a check if you choose to. Help one person. It’s a truism, but I will say it: It is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.