How does one define “distressed”? Anxious, worried, upset in a slightly old-fashioned way, and somehow ragged. Damsels can be in distress, without being distressed ladies—blithely awaiting rescue, without a ribbon out of place. Fashionably scuffed dressers or jeans are said to be “gently distressed.” When the word is modified that way, it also calls to mind a baby, half woken up and wiggling, darting out a hand to see if someone is there.
When Tim Armstrong, the C.E.O. of AOL, talked about “distressed babies” a few days ago, though, there was nothing gentle added, in either the language or the intent. He was explaining, in a conference call with employees, why the company was making their 401(k) plan worse. “In 2012,” he said, in a transcript that Capital New York got first,
We had two AOL-ers that had distressed babies that were born that we paid a million dollars each to make sure those babies were OK in general. And those are the things that add up into our benefits cost. So when we had the final decision about what benefits to cut because of the increased healthcare costs, we made the decision, and I made the decision, to basically change the 401(k) plan.
In other words, don’t blame us for cutting back on retirement benefits; it was two babies we had to keep alive who took your money.
But what did Armstrong mean when he said “we paid a million dollars”? This does not represent an act of charity on the part of a struggling company. AOL is profitable, and just had a very good quarter; it has done well enough to pay Armstrong twelve million dollars, a number that does not seem to distress him. And, as Deanna Fei, the rightly distressed mother of one said baby, wrote in a piece for Slate, she and her husband, who works for AOL, had paid their premiums for the company’s health-insurance plan. This is what they bought, with that money and her husband’s labor: an agreement that, in the event that something bad happened with their health or that of their child, they would be able to go to the doctor, and that they wouldn’t be bankrupted.
"Armstrong’s rationale is really just a riff on how much higher profits would be if you didn’t have to hire human beings."
Something very bad did happen. Fei woke up with sudden pains when she was only five months pregnant with her second child. She was rushed to the hospital, and her baby girl was rescued with an emergency Caesarean section—one pound nine ounces, her skin all purple and blue the way no baby’s should be. (One doctor, Fei said, was “visibly shaken.”) She was put on a ventilator. “That day, we were told that she had roughly a one-third chance of dying before we could bring her home. That she might not survive one month or one week or one day,” Fei wrote.
For longer than I can bear to remember, we were too terrified to name her, to know her, to love her. In my lowest moments—when she suffered a brain hemorrhage, when her right lung collapsed, when she stopped breathing altogether one morning—I found myself wishing that I could simply mourn her loss and go home to take care of my strapping, exuberant, fat-cheeked son.
Except that the baby girl wouldn’t give up: “over the next weeks, she fought for every minute of her young life, as did her doctors and nurses, and we could only strive to do the same.” She was in distress, that baby, but she wasn’t going to wait like some damsel.
Fei doesn’t doubt that all of this—“blood transfusions, head ultrasounds, the insertion of breathing tubes, feeding tubes, and a central line extending nearly to her heart”—could have cost a million dollars. That is the point of insurance. AOL, which is apparently self-insured (while using Cigna as one of its plan administrators) made a bet that it wasn’t going to get the employees it needed without a decent health-care plan, and that this was the way to provide it. (It also, as some commentators have noted, appears not to have opted for a reinsurance policy as a hedge against big claims.) Armstrong also complained about Obamacare, which he said would cost the company millions; as Ezra Klein pointed out in a Bloomberg column, this suggests only that he and AOL haven’t looked closely at the law, and figured out how the company can now join a larger risk pool and protect itself from big swings. Or was his problem with Obamacare that it won’t let insurers tell people like Fei’s daughter that they’ve reached some “lifetime cap” before their first birthday, or keep her father looking for a job with a more sane employer because he’s worried that a “preëxisting condition” will keep her from finding a new insurer?
But wasn’t this about 401(k)s—retirement plans—and not about health care? Armstrong’s rationale is really just a riff on how much higher profits would be if you didn’t have to hire human beings. As Fei wrote, Armstrong “exposed the most searing experience of our lives, one that my husband and I still struggle to discuss with anyone but each other, for no other purpose than an absurd justification for corporate cost-cutting.” (She says she is doing so now because her husband starting getting queries from co-workers minutes after the conference call.) The change to the 401(k) plan was this: instead of matching contributions quarterly, the company would only pay its share for employees who were active on December 31st of a given year. If you were left or passed away or were fired on December 30th, you would get nothing, despite three hundred and sixty-four days as an AOL-er. With the “distressed baby” move, Armstrong removed the presumption that the company wouldn’t use this in bad faith. If someone complains to the entire company about how much trouble it is that a couple of babies were gravely sick, would you put it past him to fire employees who were about to be due a big contribution? Maybe in his next speech he’d be complaining about AOL-ers who had the temerity to die from heart attacks on New Year’s Day, instead of on Christmas.
That speech won’t be given now; Armstrong’s speech was so blatantly oblivious, so cheap in every sense of the word, that he has had to apologize (after a false start, in which he said he’d just been trying to show how much he cared) and also reverse the 401(k) change.
But we’re not done with this. There is more to be distressed about, on behalf of babies, parents, and the people who work with them.
For one thing, Fei pushed back at Armstrong from what was, within the terms of our discussions about parenting, an unassailable position. Armstrong, in his first non-apology, had referred to her pregnancy as “high-risk”:
But there was nothing high-risk about my pregnancy. I never had a single risk factor for a preterm birth, let alone one as extreme as this one. Until the morning I woke up in labor, every exam indicated that our daughter was perfectly healthy.
Her first pregnancy had been “normal”; this one had appeared to be, too. She is absolutely right to remind Armstrong that life itself is riskily uncertain, and of the shallowness of acting as if we make our own luck entirely, picking our circumstances from a store shelf.
But if there had been risk factors—so what? What if she had been older, or had her own health problems or struggles with infertility, or maybe even was single? What if she’d had a wife, rather than a husband? She should have just as much right in any of those circumstances not to be exposed and blamed, and for her baby to not be treated like a beggar.
Armstrong might have assumed there was some such factor at work, and that he had more resentment to play with—including his own. One item that emerged this week was a 2005 workplace-discrimination suit against Google, with allegations against one of its executives, a certain Tim Armstrong, brought by a woman on his sales team with a high-risk pregnancy. She’d initially been carrying quadruplets; according to the suit, it was soon after she lost two of them that Armstrong called her an “H.R. nightmare” and badgered and maneuvered her out of her job; she lost a third a couple of weeks after he fired her over the phone. (Valleywag has an account of the suit; because of a clause in the woman’s agreement with Google, the case went to arbitration rather than to trial.)
AOL and other tech companies—really, any firm that makes use of educated workers—relies on women who put off having children while they or their partners get graduate degrees or work. Maybe it doesn’t make sense to have a baby yet when you are working around the clock for a software company; maybe you can’t imagine paying for child care while you still have so many student loans, and want to be responsible. It often is possible to have children later, for some women easily so, but the numbers do undeniably get worse. (This message is the subject of a number of recent books, including one by my old friend Tanya Selvaratnam, “The Big Lie.”) We have an economy, culture, and workplace that push women and families in a certain direction, and then treat the higher risks they take on as theirs alone. Contempt replaces community. If Armstrong illustrates anything, it is the quickness with which a modern company can abandon those who reshaped their lives on its behalf, and made it rich.
It’s not just the high-tech economy or older mothers or unconventional choices. Too many young women in this country don’t get proper prenatal care—increasing their risk—because of the insanity of our health-care system, or find that they are questioned for having a baby it’s said they can’t “afford.” A grown man on a corporate conference call whining about the burden of other people’s babies is simultaneously the most un-American and distinctly American scene one can imagine. What are we risking as a country when we price a child that way? Whose distressed baby is it?