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Monday, March 20, 2006

A Tough Week for Hispanic Nashville

Its been a bad week to be Hispanic in Nashville. Our own Senator Bill Frist sent signals that "illegal immigration" will be a cornerstone in his anticipated presidential campaign. Restauranteur Aureliano Ceja, owner of La Hacienda in the Little Mexico area of Nolinsville Road was beaten to death in a home invasion; his wife remains in critical condition similarly beaten. Land owner Fermin Estrada, while shooting off his pistol in a traditional Mexican celebration during a family barbecue was shot in the head with a rifle by a Shelby County Sheriff's deputy who says he felt threatened. Indeed, this has not been our finest week as a society.

During my last eight years before coming to Nelson I worked in and around El Paso, Juarez, Chihuahua City, and Torreon setting up manufacturing plants. Here I'll admit my bias that I'm a fan of the Mexican people and feel that Hispanics in general are getting a raw deal in today's political climate.

During my Mexican tour of duty (which includes El Paso if you've ever been there) I saw true poverty. Our manufacturing workers had some of the best jobs in the cities where we were located; they made the equivalent of $32 - $64 per week depending upon the pay grade of their job. They typically hauled water and rigged hand-made wiring from the nearest utility pole to steal electricity. On cold mornings you could rarely see Juarez from the mountains of El Paso because people burned anything they could find in hand-made brick fireplaces to keep warm: this included pallets, tires, trash, etc... It amazes me that so many Americans who pride themselves in our American ingenuity and grit fail to see the parallel between the modern Hispanic experience and our own ancestors. I submit to you that faced with similar living conditions and lack of opportunity, most of us would swim the Rio Grande to America and would not care if American considered us there legally or not. Hungry is hungry, especially if its your children.

Many of you know that I recently moved from the Logan County, KY area about an hour north of Nashville. This is tobacco country and low-cost, manual agricultural labor is important to the local economy. I have seen grown men (there both legally and illegally) living 12 to a single-wide trailer and saving as much money as possible to send home to their families. And, typically, those are strong Christian families who stay together either in Mexico or eventually in the U.S. With values of faith, family, hard work, and determination to succeed in our world (their new world) they should be held up by all of us as modern-day examples of what our families endured for our sake in generations past.

And, success is in no way guaranteed. Aureliano Ceja was 72 and worked all his life to make his family successful Americans. His final reward, in this world, was ultimately to be killed by someone who coveted his wealth. Fermin Estrada was celebrating the purchase of 14 acres to call his own and was surrounded by a loving extended family that had come from as far away as Georgia when he was killed by at best misunderstanding and at worst prejudice.

In this context, the Hispanic experience in Tennessee is heroic and not parasitic as some politicians and radio shock jocks would have you believe. In our company we have many fine, long-serving Hispanic employees. As this next political cycle heats up let's not let the politics of the day convince us that any of our people are simply "those people".

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Privacy and Prayer Requests

We've had more than our usual share of employees in the hospital or out on leave in recent days. This has led a few of you to wonder why we don't share this type of information in the form of prayer requests with the workforce. After all, aren't we Christians? Don't we in HR believe that prayer works? Apparently we once shared this type of information, but the laws of the land and the expectations of sick or injured individuals have changed with it. Here's the new landscape.

Around 2000 the Health Insurance Portability and Privacy Act (HIPPA) passed through Congress. Within weeks every HR department, hospital, doctor's office, or any facility that handled private medical information had to put in safeguards to make sure personal information did not become publicly known. This is why you can go to a hospital and ask for "Joe Blow's room number" and get it, but you can't go to a hospital and ask if Joe Blow is a patient (they won't tell you). I can ask United Healthcare how much money we've spent in cancer treatments this year, but I can't ask them (and wouldn't, by the way) who among our workforce has or has had cancer. As an employer, we can require employees who are seeking a leave of absence to provide medical certification from their doctor as to why they are being treated. However, if the employee is not asking for a leave and is only requesting PTO then we can't (and wouldn't) ask the employee why they are taking off work or what medical condition they have.

This brings us to the employee expectation issue. Employees are more aware as a group than ever before that they don't have to answer such questions. Often times an employee will take PTO rather than FMLA leave for short medical-related absences rather than disclose a medical condition. Others will exhaust their PTO completely before disclosing a medical condition and then request FMLA after the fact. In such cases, the company does not always get complete information.

I myself did this in 2001. I was working for someone for whom, I had been warned, surgeries and illnesses were a sign of weakness. I had been with the company four months and discovered that I had to have arthroscopic knee surgery. I scheduled two vacation days (as we called them in '01) on a Thursday and Friday. I had the surgery 8:00 a.m. on Thursday and was home by 3:00 that afternoon. I was on my back that evening and all day Friday; walked on crutches Saturday and Sunday, and Sunday evening took a triple dose of pain medication and put my crutches in the closet. I reported to work on Monday with a slight limp that I attributed to weekend gardening and never told anyone (until now). I hadn't mentioned it because, frankly, is really isn't anyone's business. Keep this in mind when I tell you, then, that an employee undergoing chemotherapy may covet our prayers but does not want the phone calls, letters, cards, and workplace conversation about them that goes with it.

In our church one variation of the liturgy asks us to pray for "all who are sick, all who suffer, and all who will die today". Maybe we should do the same for members of our Nelson family whose struggles are known only to themselves, God and a handful of close friends and family. If that's the way they want it, then we should afford them that respect.

Jim