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Caught in No-Man’s-Land : Engineer, TRW Dispute His ‘Forgotten’ Status

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Communists still ran the Kremlin when Rao V. Aysola went out on sick leave from TRW. By the time he recovered, the Reds were gone and TRW’s once-mighty spy satellite business had begun to wither.

Aysola left TRW in 1990 with informal assurances from his supervisors that he could return to his job. And, he says, he never received a layoff slip or termination notice while he was sick.

But when the Indian-born engineer tried to return to work after recovering from spinal surgery in 1992, his old supervisors, and even the old division where he worked, were as long gone as the Cold War.

Aysola, 57, is a broken man today, forgotten amid nearly a million unemployed aerospace workers nationwide. He is stuck in a bureaucratic twilight zone--unable to get his old job back, qualify for an early-retirement package or even collect unemployment insurance. Until just last month, Aysola still not had received payment from TRW for all of his vacation time.

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While Aysola is hardly alone in coming to grips with the harsh realities facing aerospace industry employees, his case appears to be among the most bizarre, yet poignant, to emerge from the industry bust.

“I gave them the best years of my life,” Aysola said. “Now they act like I don’t exist. All the good days are gone.”

TRW insists that Aysola, who spent 16 years at TRW and once supervised 65 engineers, was handled properly. A spokesman said the company is sympathetic to his problem, but he said Aysola failed to stay in touch with TRW and had essentially abandoned his job by 1992.

In years past, TRW distinguished itself as a company that went to extremes to care for loyal workers, offering not always the highest pay compared to bigger aerospace contractors, but a well-known commitment to job security.

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In those days, Aysola might have gotten a job back or a pile of money. But repeated contract and program losses have eaten into TRW’s business, and the firm has been forced to eliminate 8,000 jobs since 1986. TRW’s generosity, like that of most aerospace firms, is more circumspect now.

Aysola’s saga began when he left TRW after he began to lose motor control of his hands. He required spinal surgery in his neck, leaving him hospitalized and in recovery through much of 1991 and early ’92.

Aysola has also had a series of personal problems, including caring for his son who became seriously ill and required nearly a year of hospitalization. Aysola says he is near bankruptcy from the debt left by his son’s illness. His wife, whom he met as a young child in Hyderabad, India, recently filed for divorce.

“He has had every problem in life,” said Thasamuthu Ramakrishnan, a former TRW engineer who used to work for Aysola.

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TRW kept Aysola on full pay through 1990 and much of 1991. Compared to most major corporations, whose policies are to retain a sick employee for just six months, TRW was generous. Aysola was a trusted veteran engineer, according to one TRW official who asked not to be identified.

“I worked alongside this guy for 16 years,” the official said. “We put in plenty of hours on weekends and late at night. We put in our dues here. Rao is not asking for much, just for them to hire him and then retire him out. He was a good section manager and took care of his people.”

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Ramakrishnan recalled that his former supervisor went to great lengths to protect his employees.

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“He cares for his people. At one time, one of our projects was canceled, and he worked very hard to place his people in other jobs,” Ramakrishnan said. “Very rarely do we come across such people.”

According to TRW spokesman Al Frascella, the company made repeated efforts to contact Aysola during his lengthy illness, both by telephone and mail. Aysola also failed in 1991 and 1992 to complete a medical examination to extend his sick leave, Frascella said.

TRW says Aysola was sent two registered letters requesting that he contact the company or its insurer, or be terminated. However, personnel records provided by the company show that Aysola never personally signed for either letter. Aysola says he never received the letters and that the company failed to respond to dozens of his letters and telephone calls.

TRW decided to sever Aysola’s employment on Feb. 15, 1992. Aysola said he was never notified that he was terminated--a contention the company first conceded but later disputed. Moreover, TRW never reclaimed Aysola’s top-secret badge.

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Independent experts said a failure to provide notice of termination and collect the security pass lend credence to Aysola’s contention that TRW let him slip through the cracks.

“It is incomprehensible that somebody could be terminated on sick leave and not be told about it,” said William S. Waldo, a partner at Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker, a labor law firm that represents corporate management. “It is known as a secret firing.”

Said Steven Aftergood, a security expert at the Federation of American Scientists: “The possession of a top-secret badge by an unemployed worker is not a trivial violation of security rules. If you have former employees, you don’t want them returning to a secure facility. It looks like evidence that this guy was not processed out correctly.”

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TRW officials say they attempted to retrieve Aysola’s security badge after he was granted sick leave but were unsuccessful in contacting him and reported that to government security officials, Frascella said.

After The Times asked TRW officials about Aysola’s case, the company mailed him a notice in mid-December stating that he no longer worked at TRW and enclosed a check for $60.11 for unused vacation time.

Frascella said TRW is still laying off workers and has no job for Aysola. He added that Aysola could not get early retirement, because only full-time employees, not including those on sick leave, qualify.

“It is very sad and you have to be compassionate about it,” Frascella said. “Had he responded to TRW’s initial letters, this could have been avoided.”

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Jaak Treiman, Aysola’s Canoga Park attorney, said it was TRW that failed to respond to numerous efforts by Aysola to get in touch. Treiman said part of the problem was that Aysola took for granted verbal assurances provided by his supervisors that he could return.

“TRW said it wanted Rao to be a part of the family, and Rao swallowed that hook, line and sinker,” Treiman said. “When Rao got informal assurances from company supervisors, he took them at face value.”


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