The marketing motto for United Way of America is "Live United." Pat Elam would disagree. After decades of service to the United Way, the 77-year-old got booted just a few days before Christmas. The reason? As she tells it, the agency was afraid - erroneously - she might take off some time occasionally to look after her severely ailing husband.
The marketing motto for United Way of America is "Live United."
Pat Elam would disagree. After decades of service to the United Way, the 77-year-old got booted just a few days before Christmas. The reason? As she tells it, the agency was afraid - erroneously - she might take off some time occasionally to look after her severely ailing husband.
"I just felt like I was unjustly done, because I have a husband who has cancer," Elam says.
If it matters, Elam didn't call me to flame up the United Way. Rather, the call came from elsewhere - someone who heard what had happened to Elam.
Elam lives in Macomb with her husband Dick, 79. The retired farmers have been married almost 59 years.
In 1986, Pat Elam took a part-time job with the McDonough County United Way, based in Macomb. Elam was one of two employees, working under four different executive directors.
Her job title was secretary, but she did much more. She was the agency receptionist. She covered for executive directors when they traveled on frequent business trips. She handled all incoming donations and made bank deposits. She sent out brochures and contribution notices. And she did anything else that needed to be done.
Further, she somehow got all of her work done in just three, 7-hour days per week. And she never called in sick.
Plus, she was a bargain. For all of those 22 years, Elam made only minimum wage.
"Pat was the best," says Jeannie Starns, who served as executive director for 14 years. "She was the most conscientious, concerned employee they ever had. She knows everything (about) how to operate that organization and the way to make it work right.
"She was my guide. She was my mentor."
Starns left less than two years ago to tend to her sick mother. Elam helped acclimate the new executive director, Judy Anderson.
Everything seemed OK until this fall, when Elam's husband was diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus. After seeing a specialist in St. Louis, he was scheduled for Dec. 1 surgery at Barnes-Jewish Hospital there.
Before leaving, Elam discussed the matter with executive director Anderson. Elam wasn't sure how long her husband would be hospitalized, but doctors estimated three weeks.
So, Elam said she could return to work Dec. 22. She says Anderson replied, "There's no use coming in in December."
The extensive surgery included removal of the esophagus. To replace it, surgeons pulled his stomach up toward his throat.
Still, he recovered faster than expected. They got back to Macomb on Dec. 11. So, with plenty of work time left in December, Elam asked if she could get back to her job right away.
Rather than discuss the matter immediately, Anderson set a meeting for last Thursday. At the meeting, Anderson dropped a bomb, saying she believed Elam would be gone too much to look after her husband.
"She told me I was terminated because my work schedule was too in flux," Elam says.
Elam was flabbergasted. Elam says she could maintain her three-day work week, no problem.
Her husband has been getting physical therapy at an in-patient facility in Macomb. Upon his release, he still will need to visit doctors and therapists. But local agencies provide free rides for patients who need them. In other words, her husband would be fine while she worked.
"If my husband needed me, I'd quit in a minute," Elam says. "My husband is number one. But we're both independent."
Plus, Elam didn't want to give up her work. For one, they're on Medicare, so her meager pay helped cover prescriptions they take for various health problems.
For another, she likes the job.
"I'm not a sit-at-home person," she says. "I enjoyed what I was doing."
So, why get rid of such a valuable, loyal and inexpensive employee? Good question, one executive director Anderson won't answer.
"I just prefer not to discuss it," she told me curtly by cell phone.
When I pressed her, she retorted, "I'm out of state right now. Now's not a really good time for me."
How terrible for Anderson, especially during the holidays. I'd mention that now's not a really good time for Pat Elam to be fired. But I don't think she'd listen much.
Phil Luciano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (309) 686-3155.