When you don't fit in
By ROBERT TRIGAUX
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 22, 1999
When MCI Communications Corp. opened its customer service center in Pinellas Park in August 1993, everybody cheered.
Tampa Bay area economic developers crowed that they had landed a whopper -- the cutting-edge telecommunications giant was the largest new employer to come to the area in five lean years. Pinellas Park officials, giddy at the prospect of up to 800 new jobs, approved a slew of tax incentives. They even christened a street MCI Drive.
No one was more pleased at MCI's arrival than Stefanie Mackenzie. The 41-year-old had worked for MCI elsewhere in Florida. She saw the new center as her big chance to use her growing computer skills, climb the ladder in the fast-paced telecommunications field and move back to the Tampa Bay area where she had grown up.
Hired as a supervisor on the center's second floor, Mackenzie managed a group of customer service representatives who took calls from MCI's small-business customers. Their job was to solve customer problems and sell new MCI services. Mackenzie was popular. Her group performed well and won awards.
Mackenzie received mostly superior performance reviews. She began thinking of herself as a lifer at MCI.
Then things changed for the worse, says Mackenzie and other MCI workers. MCI brought in new managers to the center. Suddenly, performance took a back seat. Mackenzie found herself on the defensive. There were remarks and suggestions from management critical of her weight and appearance. Other heavy employees were prodded to shed pounds if they wanted to get ahead.
Mackenzie, a sharp and meticulous dresser, stood 5-foot-5 and weighed 255 pounds. She was a size 24.
When Microsoft Corp. in 1995 chose the MCI center to handle customer calls for its new Windows 95 -- the largest software program release in history -- Mackenzie applied for a series of better positions. One job was offered, then rescinded, she says. Later, she was passed over for a man who was younger and had less experience.
In November 1995, Mackenzie again was mentioned as a candidate for promotion during a meeting of senior managers at the MCI center. The center's director, Kristine Ketcham, suggested there was no room for fat managers. The exchange followed an earlier internal MCI e-mail from the tall and blond Ketcham to another senior manager indicating that Mackenzie would never be management material because she was too fat. The memo was seen by another MCI employee.
Discouraged by her job rejections, Mackenzie had complained earlier that year to MCI's local human resources department. She even sent a detailed account of her difficulties to MCI chairman and chief executive Bert Roberts at MCI headquarters in Washington asking for help. There was no response.
By March 1996, Mackenzie decided to file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, charging that MCI had discriminated against her because of her weight. She filed her complaint under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which defines severe obesity as a disability. MCI disputed Mackenzie's allegations.
After hearing her story, Mackenzie recalls, the local EEOC administrator asked: "What took you so long to come forward?"
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Mackenzie was born Stefanie Argudo in Houston, the daughter of an Ecuadorean father and a North Carolina-raised mother. Her father, a geophysicist, moved the family often to keep up with oil-business opportunities. They were living in Cuba when Fidel Castro took power. Mackenzie remembers hearing gunfire while hiding under the bed and watching as soldiers entered her Havana home.
By 1963, after an attempt at the banana business, the family moved to Tampa. Mackenzie's parents started a snack food business making plantain chips. The company, Plantain Products Co., is now managed by Stefanie's brother and makes chips under the Chifles brand.
As a chubby teenager during the Twiggy era and as a young adult, Mackenzie tried many diets. She used amphetamines, diuretics and sought psychiatric counseling. Some worked -- she once dropped to 128 pounds -- but only for a while. By her late 20s, Mackenzie was exhausted with dieting and came to terms with her weight: It was here to stay.
"Enough was enough," she said. "I realized my weight was no reflection on me as a human being."
Mackenzie married and had two children. As a plump child, she had endured the taunts about her weight. As an adult and parent, she decided she would not be so passive.
Mackenzie is a member of a the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance, a California group that works to improve the public perception of fat people. And she is a fan of a rare role model for fat people: TV actor Camryn Manheim, who plays the hefty lawyer Ellenor Frutt in ABC's The Practice.
When Mackenzie's son was 7, he told her that the kids at school had asked him if his mother was so big she might explode. She called the school and asked if she could speak to the class. She wanted a chance to show the class that fat people did not have to fit the cliches of being "lazy or sloppy or stupid or smelly or not well-spoken," she said.
"I am here to dispel the myth," she told her son's class.
When her young daughter, who is large, was urged to go on a diet by a teacher's aide in kindergarten, Mackenzie again intervened. Her daughter doesn't need any pressure about dieting, especially at such a young age, she says. With all the ads showing thin models and the still-acceptable jokes about fat people, Mackenzie figures her daughter will have enough to deal with later.
"We look at her Barbie dolls and I ask my daughter: "Do you know anyone who looks like this?' The answer is no," Mackenzie said.
Nor does Mackenzie shy away from the "F" word: fat. She's not into euphemisms like "people of size" or "plus size."
"People try to tell me I'm not fat. I say thanks. But I am."
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Medical research increasingly points to obesity as genetically based or as a symptom of other medical problems. The Americans with Disabilities Act defines severe obesity as a disability. But judges and juries typically show little sympathy in such cases, says James Goodman, an Atlanta lawyer who runs the Persons with Disabilities Law Center.
In discrimination cases, race and gender are protected classes and command the attention of the courts. But obesity is not a protected class. Legal victories are difficult, litigation is draining and any financial rewards often are low.
"Courts always get caught up on whether obesity is a voluntary condition," said Walter Lindstrom Jr., a lawyer who runs the Obesity Law and Advocacy Center in San Diego. Lindstrom weighed 400 pounds before gastric bypass surgery helped him lose 150 pounds. "Courts are loathe to protect people who brought this on themselves, even though obesity often is not a life choice any more than diabetes or hypertension."
In one case in California, Lindstrom represents telecommunications worker Rod Montgomery against his former employer. The issue: weight discrimination. The defendant: MCI.
Discrimination complaints filed with the EEOC are common. Finding evidence of discrimination is another matter.
Discrimination charges based on disability have increased steadily at the EEOC since the ADA was passed. From 1992 through 1998, 108,939 charges of discrimination were filed with the EEOC based on disability.
In half the cases, the EEOC found no or insufficient evidence to support the charges. Less than 14 percent of all cases since 1992 have resulted in a finding of reasonable cause or a settlement.
The bulk of discrimination cases based on disability at EEOC involve back, heart and neurological impairments or are related to diseases like diabetes or cancer. Obesity discrimination is unusual.
"It's not something we track," said EEOC spokesman Michael Widomski in Washington. "We don't get a lot of those charges."
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In 1996, when Tampa EEOC investigator John Berendsen began investigating Mackenzie's complaint of discrimination at MCI, she already had left her job on short-term disability. Pressured about her weight and denied promotions in 1995, Mackenzie was stressed. She had panic attacks at work. She was losing hair. After a day at work, she often threw up in the bathroom at home.
Mackenzie's claims in her EEOC complaint were bolstered by statements from other MCI employees. In one, an employee states she read one memo from center director Ketcham to another manager that said Ketcham "did not want Stephanie McKinnzie (sic) to be on her management team because she is fat."
Another supporting statement in the EEOC case from Vel Thompson, an MCI employee at the time, notes she heard Ketcham say that Mackenzie's weight was a "real problem" and that Ketcham "had a problem with fat people." Ketcham also said she did not like fat people because "they are an embarrassment to me."
Ketcham left the MCI center and the company in late 1996, according to MCI. She could not be reached for comment.
Mackenzie was not the only employee to struggle at the MCI center. Nikki Phillips had worked for MCI since 1986 in Texas and California before applying for work at the Pinellas center. Like Mackenzie, she joined in 1993 as an MCI supervisor. And like Mackenzie, Phillips was heavy.
At first, work at the center was good, Phillips recalls. But when Ketcham came aboard as the new director, the climate changed. Feedback from management was more about losing weight and exercise than about work performance.
"That disappointed me," Phillips said. "I did not think my value should be based on the way I looked. I had been with MCI seven years. I knew this was not MCI. This was a fiefdom where we had to pay homage."
After two years, Phillips had had enough and transferred to MCI in Houston. She later quit the company and now works for a Texas newspaper. She is so upset with MCI, she refuses to use MCI's long-distance service.
Phillips watched Mackenzie's troubles alongside her at MCI. "I think she is courageous. I did not stand up and say anything. I left. But it's true. Fat people are the last people in America you can make fun of and get away with it."
Fellow MCI supervisor Frank Peterman Jr. also saw how Mackenzie and others were treated. "There was a period of time when a segment of folks in authority seemed to do some things unfairly," he said.
Mackenzie was a "straight talker," Peterman added. "She is a person of high integrity and was a pretty solid supervisor." Peterman left MCI after 31/2 years when he was elected to the St. Petersburg City Council. He now works for the Juvenile Service Program.
It would take the EEOC two years, until 1998, to conclude its investigation in Mackenzie's case. Its finding: Mackenzie had been discriminated against because of her weight. The EEOC specified that MCI's director at the time "held a bias against" Mackenzie "because of her disability."
The EEOC issued a document that in effect allowed Mackenzie to pursue legal action in the courts against MCI for discrimination. She chose not to sue.
At MCI (now called MCI Worldcom since a recent merger), company spokeswoman Jamie DePeau says the company contested Mackenzie's allegations of discrimination during the EEOC investigation. And the company disputed what it called the EEOC's "preliminary" findings.
"Had this gone to the next step, we would have defended our action in court and demonstrated we acted in accordance with the law," DePeau said.
After mediation failed and Mackenzie did not pursue a lawsuit, MCI considers the matter closed. "Mrs. Mackenzie chose to leave MCI. She had a job with us but chose to leave," DePeau said.
Mackenzie officially quit the company where she had hoped to spend her career in November 1997. "It was like being jilted in love. I was totally invested in MCI," she said.
Since MCI, her faith in corporate America has wilted as a place that offers a fair shot at advancement. "Maybe I watched too much Superman on TV as a kid," Mackenzie said. "I figured there would be truth, justice and the American way."
Mackenzie still takes comfort in the EEOC's finding of discrimination. She chose not to sue MCI because of the likely cost in time, expense and toll on her family.
Now 46, Mackenzie is busy putting her MCI experience behind her.
Since December 1997, she has worked for a temp agency as a contract worker for a unit of GTE Corp. testing billing software in Tampa. She likes her job and the company, but still feels "gun-shy" at work.
And Mackenzie remains angry and hurt at how MCI let its Pinellas center get out of hand.
When Mackenzie worked as an MCI supervisor, she took pride in the pep talk she would deliver to a new team of customer service representatives. She told the newcomers that they were only limited in their careers by how far they wanted to go.
"For so many years, I really believed that," she said. "Somewhere along the line, I stopped giving that speech."