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Unhealthy S.F. 

Alleged violation of S.F.'s universal healthcare law exposes its limits.

Wednesday, Sep 3 2008

A shop for the polite and etiquette-conscious, the Crane and Co. stationery boutique in the Financial District is now the first company to face allegations of a very improper violation of the city's universal healthcare law. After the store failed to make required expenditures for an employee, the city is now investigating whether Crane's fired the worker in retaliation for her asking for help with medical costs.

Paid $38,500 on salary as an assistant manager, 37-year-old Julie Ward says she couldn't afford the company's healthcare package when hired in April 2007, and repeatedly asked the store manager, Kim Blumenstein, if the company could help her pay for a cheaper out-of-pocket plan. Ward suffers from a muscle condition called dermatomyositis that limits her mobility. After Ward toppled her motor scooter into an unmarked sinkhole near City Hall a year ago, her pain escalated and doctors referred her to specialists.

On her first anniversary at the store on April 30, Ward says Blumenstein again turned down her request for contributions, so Ward e-mailed Crane's owner in Virginia about her situation. According to Ward, Blumenstein informed her a couple of days later she was thinking of firing her; Ward told co-workers she planned to call the city's Office of Labor Standards Enforcement.

On May 9, Blumenstein handed Ward a terse letter that said she was fired — just nine days after she had written Ward an anniversary note stating: "You have become such a vital part of this store ... I look forward to the coming year!"

If the store is found to have fired Ward in retaliation for inquiring about healthcare, it could face a $100 penalty for each day she remains fired, and could be required to "reinstate or otherwise compensate" her.

Blumenstein says the firing had nothing to do with the healthcare ordinance, but with a "firable offense" that happened after the glowing note, stating only, "It's definitely not for the reasons [Ward] would like it to be." Blumenstein says she didn't even know about the ordinance until Ward made the complaint to the city, although the city says every business received two notices in the mail detailing the law.

In addition to paying penalty fees to the city, Crane's has paid more than $1,000 in owed expenditures and interest into an account for Ward. But there's a catch: The money can be used only for future medical expenses — not toward the $5,000 in outstanding medical bills Ward now has no income to pay.

With the unemployment checks that are currently covering her basics running out in a couple of months, Ward has been looking for other work. But faced with a tough job market, she says she may file a civil suit: "I feel like I'm on the verge of homelessness," she says. "I'm still having a problem not getting up and going to that job each day, because I really loved it."

About The Author

Lauren Smiley


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