Genetech is sitting on the top of the world – well, actually, down in Silicon Valley. It has a $4 billion portfolio and is raking in cash from the high-profile anti-cancer agents Avastin and Herceptin. Thankful patients write all the time, and the company duly reprints their letters as full page ads in places like The New York Times. “I am so grateful to the team that worked on the cancer medicine that I believe saved my life,” reads a letter from former patient Joel Golub, “… Your discovery has given me a chance to … go to a dance recital for my beautiful daughter, see my son play baseball, and generally squeeze every drop I can out of life.”
It’s not just cancer survivors who love Genentech. According to both Science and Fortune magazines, the company ranks as one of the best possible places to work. Employees are entitled to a list of perks that would make most American workers weep in envy: subsidized childcare, $10,000 a year reimbursement for tuition, domestic partner benefits, free iced tea and espresso, fully paid gym memberships, discounted pet insurance, nursing mothers’ rooms, etc.—not to mention generous health insurance and a three-week vacation. At Genentech, every day is casual Friday, and on Friday itself the company hosts a weekly social called a “Ho- Ho.”
Then there’s the food in the company cafeteria. Monday’s offerings included “Hazelnut Beef Stir Fry with Sesame Jasmine Rice and Soy Beans” and “Caribbean Spiced Pork with Apple Fennel Chutney and Sweet Potato Puree,” for a mere $6, since Genentech picks up the rest of the tab. Or you might opt for the poached salmon or herb-crusted red snapper at $5 a shot, and dinner is served till 2 AM.
But where there is food, there are food service workers, and the ones at Genentech don’t experience the company as a life-giving force. It acts, in fact, as if it were determined to deny them any care. If this didn’t show up in the Science and Fortune surveys of employee satisfaction, that’s because Genentech’s food service workers are subcontracted through a company called Guckenheimer Enterprises. Still, they’re the ones who dish out the Apple Fennel Chutney in the cafeteria, and if they were to write a letter to Genentech for publication in The New York Times, it would go something like this statement from Milarose Oriel, age 53 (posted in full at www.theguckstopshere.info/healthy.htm). Dear Genentech, it would say:
I like working at the Genentech cafe, but our managers don't care about our health.
I had a stroke in 2001. This year, I asked for time off to see my doctor to get my blood pressure medicine refilled. But it's like Guckenheimer doesn't want me to see a doctor. First, my manager kept telling me to postpone my appointment, then I had to beg her to give me some time off. My doctor actually called me because he was worried…
I got burned one morning in late January. Immediately, I reported the burn to the manager. I asked her to fill out an accident report, but she didn't. She gave me ointment and told me to go back to work. The next day I woke up with a fever and the burn was very painful. I asked her again to report it and she still said no.
I met Milarose Oriel in San Francisco last week. She told me she can’t afford the insurance Guckenheimer offers, so she relies on temporary insurance provided by the county. In the last few weeks, since Oriel got interested in unionizing her co-workers, she’s faced harassment at work – insults, nasty surprises, sudden loud noises – almost as if the company were trying to provoke another stroke.
Genentech can shrug off the treatment of its food service workers, who are, after all, really the employees of Guckenheimer. But that excuse doesn’t wash any more. Whether it’s Wal-Mart or the University of Virginia, indignant citizens are demanding that companies take responsibility for their subcontracted labor. The scientists who work at Genentech need to know: there’s blood in that chutney. Just as Genentech enabled Joel Golub to live to see his children’s recitals and games, it needs to make sure that Milarose Oriel achieves her dream, which is “to live to see my granddaughter grow up.”