THOMSON -- Ron Harper does the same thing every morning.
He walks into his Thomson office wondering whether his computers will
His apprehension has nothing to do with the power company and everything
to do with whether his employer, Allstate Insurance Co., has terminated
"Sometimes the computer's gone down and when it happens I think, 'Maybe
that's it.' "
Harper, who has lived and worked in Thomson since 1996, fears
retribution from one of the America's largest insurance corporations
because he's one of 29 primary plaintiffs who have filed a suit against
the company alleging age discrimination and breach of contract, among
other things. So far, the suit is awaiting class action approval from a
judge before 6,500 Allstate agents will join in, the Equal Employment
Opportunities Commission has signed on and AARP has agreed to
participate as co-counsel.
Last Sunday, Harper was featured in an article in the New York Times
Magazine on the court battle, which included a picture of him at his
office. The suit, which is in its preliminary stages, stemmed from the
"conversion" -- as Harper calls it -- of 6,500 Allstate agents. He said
agents were told they would be terminated if they didn't relinquish
their benefits and retirement savings and become independent contractors
instead of true employees.
Ron Harper holds a copy of the New York Times Magazine article about the class-action lawsuit he is involved in against Allstate Insurance Co.
Photo by Elwood Hamilton
More than 90 percent of those agents given the ultimatum were 40 years
old or older, including Harper. He and his fellow plaintiffs are suing
on the basis that Allstate tried to save money by eliminating hefty
pensions due to older workers, which they say is age discrimination.
When Harper -- who had spent thousands of dollars of his own money to
promote his business -- realized what was going on, he immediately took
"I knew there would be a lot of people upset, so I began a cyber
newsletter called Runningclock and invited agents to come in and talk
about what was going on. That started out with me and two people, and
it's grown to a couple thousand people now."
It's been a rocky road for the embattled agent, whose cause has been
discussed in The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, The Chicago Tribune, and on
National Public Radio. In the recent New York Times Magazine article,
Harper's suit was called a "watershed" moment for age discrimination.
Meanwhile Allstate has filed a counter suit. Allstate officials have
posted a response to the New York Times Magazine article on their
website, saying the piece is "riddled with inaccuracies and overreaching
"The plaintiffs in this case would like people to believe that Allstate
fired them because they were old and treated them unfairly," it said.
"However, nothing could be further from the truth."
On Thursday, Allstate spokesman Mike Trevino said that the company is
deeply disappointed in the New York Times Magazine piece.
"The allegation of age discrimination in the implementation of the
independent contractor position is completely false," he said. "Allstate
treated its agents the same, regardless of age."
Because of Runningclock, Harper has become the spokesman for a group of
employees who feel they've been wronged, even if he's too modest to
admit it outright.
"There's nothing like having righteous indignation, but I don't look on
myself as being a leader, I really don't," he said. "I'm just somebody
who got angry and said what he felt like was wrong and if other people
have lined up behind me on that, that may be being what a leader is, but
I don't look on myself as being a leader.
Harper is quick to draw a line between the product Allstate offers and
the people who manage the company.
"My odds are not with the company -- the product I sell is an absolutely
fine product -- my issues are with the management that has taken over
this company that in my opinion is using that to their own self-serving
needs," he said.
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