In 1994, doctors told John Mace he had only months to live because of his advancing AIDS.
Unable to work as a senior flight attendant for Alaska Airlines and needing money to pay mounting medical bills, living expenses and what he believed would be his funeral costs, Mace needed to tap his pension and 401(k) accounts.
Alaska policy at the time prevented employees from accessing those funds while on medical leave. So that meant Mace had to quit his job to get to his money.
But now, thanks to breakthroughs in AIDS treatment, the 41-year-old man is healthy, hearty and eager to return to work. The airline said it gladly welcomes him back - but only as a new hire, with none of the seniority privileges he accrued in his nearly 10 years with the airline.
Those benefits include picking the city to be based in, and the flight schedule to be worked. So instead of working out of Seattle, where he lives and has his doctors, Mace most likely would have to work out of the less-popular cities such as Los Angeles or Anchorage, like many brand-new attendants. He’d be on 24-hour call.
Mace and attorney Lori Haskell say they’ve talked to Alaska for months about the issue, but were unable to resolve it. Thursday, they filed suit in King County Superior Court alleging the airline is discriminating against Mace because of his disease.
Under the law, businesses must “reasonably accommodate” anyone who is disabled or who has HIV, Haskell said.
“John worked for 10 years to earn that seniority,” she said. “He’s not asking for anything he hasn’t earned.”
Mace said he simply wants to get back to work.
“It was my passion,” he said. “I felt extremely privileged to work for that company.”
Mace’s union, the Association of Flight Attendants AFL-CIO, supports his bid to regain his seniority.
It’s an issue increasing numbers of businesses will have to grapple with as new drug treatments allow people with AIDS to regain their health and return to work, Haskell said.
“These people are literally coming back from the dead,” she said.
The airline says Mace was an excellent employee, and they’d love to have him back. But they can’t bend the rules.
“Well, the facts are that John Mace resigned,” said Alaska spokesman Lou Cancelmi. “Had he remained on medical leave, he would have retained both seniority and medical benefits.
“At the time he resigned, the airline worked with him to make sure he could take maximum advantage of the benefits that he had accrued here during his service as a flight attendant.”
Frustrated, Mace says he had no choice but to resign because he had no money to live on without his pension funds. Alaska employees now have the option of tapping those funds during a medical leave, Haskell said.
The airline is simply trying to treat all employees alike, Cancelmi said. Other employees have had to resign during times of crisis, under circumstances equally compelling, he said.
“When other employees resign, they know when they return they come back as a new hire,” he said. “The issue here is not AIDS, the issue here is not John Mace. He’s been offered a job. The issue is fairness and equity for all those employees past and present.”
The airlines has contracts with five separate bargaining groups, and all of them have strict seniority provisions, Cancelmi said.
The airline realizes Mace faced a tough situation at the time, Cancelmi said. Nonetheless, “He wants us to treat him in essence as if he never left, but he’s a former employee, and we have hundreds and hundreds of former employees,” Cancelmi said.