Seattle, WA (WorkersCompensation.com) - Two Microsoft employees who had to watch “horrific images” of murder, child pornography and bestiality as part of their “online safety” job have sued the company after developing post-traumatic stress disorder.
Henry Soto and Greg Blauert say Microsoft failed to warn them about the dangers of the job and failed to provide psychological support. They sued the company in King County Court on Dec. 30, alleging negligence, disability discrimination and violations of the Consumer Protection Act.
The men were customer service workers assigned to Microsoft's online safety program, responsible for deciding whether content should be removed or reported to law enforcement.
They say they never were told about dangerous psychological impacts of the job, which included viewing child pornography, and were not allowed to turn down the assignment.
“Plaintiffs Henry Soto and Greg Blauert were not warned about the likely dangerous impact of reviewing the depictions nor were they warned they may become so concerned with the welfare of the children, they would not appreciate the harm the toxic images would cause them and their families,” they say in the complaint.
Instead of providing trained therapists for the safety team, Microsoft developed a “Wellness Program” that advised employees who were disturbed by images to take “walks and smoking breaks” and redirect thoughts by playing video games, the men say.
Soto says he was involuntarily transferred to the online safety team in 2008 and under Microsoft policy had to remain in the position for 1½ years before he could request a transfer. The team had just been formed and Microsoft failed to warn him about potential psychological trauma, according to the complaint
“The new Online Safety team had just been created and Mr. Soto was one of the initial employees with the team and had limited information about the position. He did not understand the level of activity in the following areas: assisting law enforcement efforts to break up significant crime rings, the mob, the triad, and other violent groups, reviewing photos and video requiring him to witness horrible brutality, murder, indescribable sexual assaults, videos of humans dying and, in general, videos and photographs designed to entertain the most twisted and sick minded people in the world,” the complaint states.
Soto says the job “took a significant toll on him personally” and he began having nightmares and disturbing hallucinations after viewing a video of a girl being abused and killed.
Soto was transferred to a new position in 2014, but continued to suffer post-traumatic stress symptoms and took medical leave in 2015. Labor and Industries denied Soto's claim for PTSD injuries, saying the condition is not an occupational disease and is excluded, according to the complaint.
Blauert started working on the safety team in 2011, and like Soto was required to view images of child pornography, bestiality and other disturbing content. He attended Wellness Program sessions to help with his increasing anger and nightmares, but was “criticized in his employment reviews for following his wellness plan” and reprimanded for spending too much time playing video games, he says.
He suffered a physical and mental breakdown in 2013 due to the job and is still in treatment for “acute and debilitating PTSD,” according to the complaint. Labor and Industries also denied Blauert's claim for worker's compensation.
Soto and Blauert want Microsoft to provide the online safety team with the same support and protections as the digital crimes unit, which has a larger budget.
“Plaintiffs have recommended many changes to Online Safety. The list includes mandatory rotations out of the program, for pre-vacation vacations, mandatory weekly meetings with a psychologist with specialized training and authority to remove employees when the content is becoming too toxic, a spousal wellness program, as well as changes designed to lessen the impact of continually viewing toxic images. Some of these items were also recommended to Microsoft in approximately 2007 and 2008,” according to the complaint.
Microsoft spokesperson Erin Gardner said in a statement: “Microsoft applies industry-leading, cutting-edge technology to help detect and classify illegal images of child abuse and exploitation that are shared by users on Microsoft services. Once verified by a specially trained employee, the company removes the image, reports it to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, and bans the users who shared the images from our services. We have put in place robust wellness programs to ensure the employees who handle this material have the resources and support they need.”
Both plaintiffs and their wives seek damages for pain and suffering and economic damages and treble damages under the Consumer Protection Act and Washington Disability Discrimination Act.
They are represented by Ben Wells & Associates, of Arlington, Wash., and Rebecca Roe with Schroeter Goldmark & Bender.