AOL Chief Backtracks, Under Fire, for ‘Distressed Babies’ Remark
Tim Armstrong, the chief executive officer of AOL, is at the center of a media firestorm after remarks at a company-wide town hall meeting in which he explained cuts in retirement benefits by saying employees with “distressed babies” had taxed the system and necessitated the cuts.
“Two things that happened in 2012,” Armstrong said. “We had two AOL-ers that had distressed babies that were born that we paid a million dollars each to make sure those babies were OK in general. And those are the things that add up into our benefits cost. So when we had the final decision about what benefits to cut because of the increased healthcare costs, we made the decision, and I made the decision, to basically change the 401(k) plan.”
Twitter, Facebook, and blogs lit up with comments and outrage over the comment, and Monday Armstrong reversed course and says he will not pursue the 401(k) plan that had gotten employees so upset in the first place because it proposed annual payments to retirees, as opposed to payments throughout the year.
“I made a mistake,” Time.com reports that Armstrong wrote in a note to employees on Saturday. “I apologize for my comments last week at the town hall when I mentioned specific health care examples in trying to explain our decision-making process around our employee benefit programs.”
Meanwhile, Deanna Fei, whose child is one of the two babies Armstrong was referencing, went public with an essay on Slate.com in which she said Armstrong’s apology didn’t soothe her family’s disappointment and upset over the matter. She writes:
[Armstrong's apology] is commendable, but the damage to my family had already been done.
Here is how we supposedly became a drain on AOL’s coffers. On Oct. 9, 2012, when I woke up in pain, my husband was at the airport about to board a flight for a work trip. I was home alone with our 1-year-old son and barely able to comprehend that I could be in labor. By the time I arrived at the hospital, my husband a few minutes behind, I was fully dilated and my baby’s heartbeat was slowing. Within 20 minutes, my daughter was delivered via emergency cesarean, resuscitated, and placed in the neonatal intensive care unit.
She weighed 1 pound, 9 ounces. Her skin was reddish-purple, bloody and bruised all over. One doctor, visibly shaken, described it as “gelatinous.” I couldn’t hold my daughter or nurse her or hear her cries, which were silenced by the ventilator. Without it, she couldn’t breathe.
That day, we were told that she had roughly a one-third chance of dying before we could bring her home. That she might not survive one month or one week or one day. She also had at least a one-third chance of being severely disabled, unable to ever lead an independent life.
As shell-shocked and stricken as we were, my husband and I were not oblivious to the staggering tolls, emotional and financial, attached to a baby like ours. Watching her tiny, battered body struggle to carry out the simplest functions, we couldn’t help wondering at what point the level of her suffering might outweigh the imperative to keep her alive at all costs.
For longer than I can bear to remember, we were too terrified to name her, to know her, to love her. In my lowest moments—when she suffered a brain hemorrhage, when her right lung collapsed, when she stopped breathing altogether one morning—I found myself wishing that I could simply mourn her loss and go home to take care of my strapping, exuberant, fat-cheeked son.
But the neonatologists also described my daughter as “feisty” and “amazing.” And over the next weeks, she fought for every minute of her young life, as did her doctors and nurses, and we could only strive to do the same.
My daughter had to spend three months in the NICU, dependent on many high-tech medical apparatuses and round-the-clock care. She endured more procedures than I can count: blood transfusions, head ultrasounds, the insertion of breathing tubes, feeding tubes, and a central line extending nearly to her heart.
Some commentators have questioned the implausibility of “million-dollar babies.” I have no expertise in health care costs, but I have a 3-inch thick folder of hospital bills that range from a few dollars and cents to the high six figures (before insurance adjustments). So even though it’s unlikely that AOL directly paid out those sums, I don’t take issue with Armstrong’s number.
I take issue with how he reduced my daughter to a “distressed baby” who cost the company too much money. How he blamed the saving of her life for his decision to scale back employee benefits. How he exposed the most searing experience of our lives, one that my husband and I still struggle to discuss with anyone but each other, for no other purpose than an absurd justification for corporate cost-cutting.