Monday, May 01, 2017

Widow of Uber engineer who committed suicide files lawsuit blaming the father-of-two's death on the start-up's toxic work culture

The widow of a Uber engineer who committed suicide last year is suing the company after they denied her and her two young sons workers' compensation. 


Zecole Thomas (back row left) is suing Uber, claiming her husband Jopseph (back row right) committed suicide because of the stress of his job as an engineer at the San Francisco start-up. The couple picture above with their sons Joseph, 9 (center), and Ezekiel, 8 (left) 

Zecole Thomas argues in her lawsuit that she deserves the approximately $722,000 payout because it was the San Francisco start-up's toxic work culture that caused her husband Joseph, 33, to kill himself in August. 

Mrs Thomas says that her husband was happy when he left LinkedIn to start at Uber last April. 

He even turned down a job at Apple because he thought he would have more opportunity to grow at a younger company and profit from stock options when it went public.  

The $170,000 a year salary also helped the childhood sweethearts buy their very first home, a Spanish style dream house in Pittsburg, California where they moved with their two young sons Joseph, 9, and Ezekiel, 8.

But soon, Mrs Thomas started to see the toll her husband's work was taking on him. 

'Uber’s culture was different,' Mrs Thomas told USA Today.  'Here was a man who was very good at what he did, who took care of his family. But within months, he started to tell me that he ruined our life. That he was broken.'

Uber's culture was different. Here was a man who was very good at what he did, who took care of his family. But within months, he started to tell me that he ruined our life. That he was broken.  
Zecole Thomas, widow of Joseph Thomas 
Mrs Thomas says her husband, a self-taught engineer, started coming home, complaining about how his supervisors were constantly calling his skills into question.  

'He would say, "I feel stupid, they’re all laughing at me," and yet this was a guy who was as hardworking, driven and focused as there ever was.

'He only had one year of college, but if there was a coding language he didn’t know, he’d study hard and three months later get certificates saying he knew them. It’s all very heartbreaking,' Mrs Thomas said. 

When her husband grew depressed, Mrs Thomas went with him to see a psychiatrist who recommended he quit his high-stress job. 

But by then he was so run down at work that he couldn't muster the effort. 

'The sad thing is this place (Uber) has broken me to the point where I don’t have the strength to look for another job,' Mr Thomas wrote a friend about a month before his suicide.

Joseph Thomas committed suicide a little less than five months after joining Uber. His wife claims he was happy before the job, but quickly became depressed

One morning in late August, Mrs Thomas had just returned home from dropping her sons off at school when she noticed her husband sitting in his car in the garage. 

She got into the passenger's seat to talk to him, and then noticed the blood - he had shot himself. He was pronounced at the hospital two days later, a week before he would have turned 34. 

After his death, the company denied Mrs Thomas' claim for her husband's workers' compensation. 

Under California law, such insurance doesn't cover psychiatric issues if they occur under six months into employment, and Mr Thomas had only been working at the company a little less than five months when he died.

But there's also an exception to the rule that Mrs Thomas and her lawyer think gives them a case. 

The law doesn't apply if the 'psychiatric injury is caused by a sudden and extraordinary employment condition'.   

'We think it was stress and harassment induced by his job, between him being one of the few African Americans there, working around the clock and the culture of Uber,' Mrs Thomas' attorney Richard Richardson told the San Francisco Chronicle. 'And he couldn’t talk about it to anyone because of nondisclosure agreements.'

If she wins the lawsuit, Mrs Thomas will receive about $722,000 - part of it in lump sum and the other part in weekly checks of $1,100 until both of her sons are 18. 

Mrs Thomas says she also hopes her lawsuit will draw attention to the terrible work-life balance that start-ups force upon their tech employees. 

The way these companies work is they want you to love your job more than your families, with breakfast, lunch and dinner and places to sleep at work. But people in IT want to have families, too.  
'The way many of these companies work is they want you to love your job more than your families, with breakfast, lunch and dinner and places to sleep at work,' Mrs Thomas said. 'But people in IT want to have families, too.'

Since her husband's death, Mrs Thomas sold their dream home and moved her kids to North Carolina, where she is working as a project coordinator with a small company. 

She was close to finishing her master's degree in computer science but said she is struggling due to her husband's sudden death.   

'I’m trying to rebuild my life and generate enough income to provide for my two children.

'I just don’t understand it. He was young, successful, smart; he had everything going for himself. I never in my life thought I would be without him. It’s devastating,' she said. 

Uber has refused to comment on the lawsuit, but they did released a statement saying: 'No family should go through the unspeakable heartbreak the Thomas family has experienced. Our prayers and thoughts are with them.' 

This is far from the first time that details of Uber's work culture have cast a dark light on the ride-sharing company. 

The company has been the center of a string of scandals - from CEO Travis Kalanick storming out of an Uber when a driver questioned his business practices to former employee Susan Fowler writing a scathing blog post in February about the company. 

In the blog post, Fowler described the start-up as a toxic and sexist work place.

Source : Daily Mail.