By Jack Nichols
Still working for Baglieri in January 1997, Russell fell ill with full-blown AIDS. He was hospitalized for twenty-one days with spinal meningitis, pneumonia and shingles. He recovered, however, and was soon back at work. It was then than an expanded opportunity within the McDonald's system knocked.
Interviewed by a Mr. Odell Jones, McDonald's Senior Human Resources Director, Russell did not mention AIDS, but he clearly stated that he'd need health insurance due to a pre-existing condition. He presented Mr. Jones, he says, with a “letter of insurability”. Jones assured him that there would be no problem.
"It's open enrollment," Mr. Jones reportedly said, declining on the spot to take Russell's letter of insurability, insisting it wouldn't needed and that Russell would be amply covered. The matter of insurance, however, had been the deciding factor which had impelled Russell to accept his new job.
Again, at orientation, Russell asked of Mr. Jones what documentation would be needed by the company to assure health coverage for his “pre-existing” condition.
Mr. Jones, he said, repeated that no “pre-existing” documentation would be required and that the McDonald's Corporation, which self-insures its employees, would take good care of his needs. On July 1, 1997, Russell took over the management of a McDonald's Corporation store in Minerva, Ohio.
On July 10, however, he was hospitalized for three days because his physician feared he was having a relapse, which he was not. Back at work only five days later, on July 15, he was told he didn't need to submit a doctor's notice.
On the 19th of July, however, Russell Rich's McDonald's nightmare began.
Odell Jones contacted him at home and said, “Our doctor needs to talk to yours.” The next day, Russell was asked to sign a medical release. He advised the corporation investigators that he had AIDS.
“From then on,” Russell told GayToday, “I was treated differently. My immediate supervisor, Linda Vance, became exceedingly hostile. She assigned me long hours. I'd leave work at 3 a.m. in the morning, only to be told to return at 6 a.m.—and there was an hour's drive each way between my home and the store. I pleaded for a more thoughtful schedule, but she refused to provide one.”
Russell approached his supervisor's immediate boss, Patty Hammond, asking for a meeting. That, she reportedly told him, wouldn't be possible for weeks, until September. He'd be within his rights, she suggested instead, to take two weeks of “unpaid leave.” Suffering, Russell traveled to Florida where he was unexpectedly hospitalized for a gall bladder operation.
It was then, following this $30,000 operation, that the Florida hospital informed him that he had no insurance. “But I do,” he insisted, “I'm insured by McDonald's itself!”
He telephoned McDonald's offices. The Human Resources Director, Mr. Jones, had misinformed him about pre-existing conditions, he was told. Today, Mr. Jones no longer works for McDonald's.
Russell was aghast. He would require thousands of dollars in AIDS medications and was being charged with a frustrating $30,000 operation. He was told by Odell Jones to meet him at a new store on September 30th, and to bring along the keys to the store that he'd previously been managing.
He turned over the store keys to Mr. Jones, asking at the same time if he might record their impending conversation. Jones refused, explaining that Russell would be working henceforth in the new store and that he'd be waiting on customers at the counter only. He wouldn't be allowed to handle food. He'd continue to receive his managerial salary, however, although he'd be bereft of insurance coverage. Nor would other traditional benefits such as profit sharing and stocks be available to him.
During a three-month stretch (July, August and September) Russell's life-prolonging medicines lapsed because he couldn't pay for them. His T-cell count dropped dramatically and his viral load rose. He went into a state-sponsored AIDS medicinal program, enduring unexpected lapses when medicines were not immediately available.
On October 14, 1999, he was hospitalized again, suffering another bout of life-threatening meningitis. McDonald's had constructively discharged him.
Seeing a January employment ad run by Sal Baglieri in a local newspaper, Russell remembered how the Stow McDonald's franchise owner had told him he'd always be welcomed should he wish to return. He called to inquire and was told by Baglieri, in spite of the fact that the employment ad ran for three weeks, that McDonald's in Stow was not hiring.
Six months later, another Stow ad appeared. This time Russell saw that his old job as store manager was open. He called Sal Baglieri and was told to come in, although it was clear that his old boss was not about to re-hire him. Russell had been made suspicious by Sal's saying in January that no openings were available when his ads, in fact, said differently. Since taping conversations in Ohio is legal (with one person's awareness—in this case, Russell's) Russell did not ask if he could tape Baglieri.
Mr. Baglieri, he says, informed him that he shouldn't be working with food. This view had been ridiculed by experts in the mid-1980s, after researchers had found it to be bogus.
Russell contacted a lawyer and a lawsuit was filed. McDonald's lawyers successfully postponed the trial, however. A judge ordered both parties to try mediation in an attempt to settle the case.
McDonald's offered Russell a paltry $40,000 as a settlement, even though he'd suffered as much as a $175,000 loss which included, because he now lacked insurance, unpaid medical bills. “ McDonald's has put me in the position where I'm unable to obtain health insurance due to this pre-existing condition," he said.
Mr. Baglieri has now been named as a separate defendant in Russell's suit against McDonald's. The Stow owner-operator now claims that the man he'd reportedly once considered “family” had been a difficult employee, though he'd never been “written up” and had never received a performance rating below “outstanding.” Russell's stellar record, managing an “Outstanding Store of the Year” for seven years in a row and thrice being named “Outstanding Manager” now seemed to have been forgotten.
“This has been a long battle,” Russell wearily tells GayToday, “ I feel that America needs to know what this corporate giant is doing.”
The date of McDonald's trial is set for October 10, 2000 in Cleveland. GayToday will keep abreast of Russell Rich's valiant struggle against what clearly appears to be the huge company's heartless and illegal treatment of a desperately ill but once very loyal employee.
Discrimination against AIDS patients by employers is a serious crime.
Readers may send Russell Rich encouraging e-mails at: RRich34621@aol.com