THE LAST DAY

For fourteen years Sharon’s beautiful daughter had been successfully employed at a large discount retailer, but now that was coming to a heartbreaking end. During that time the two of them had always made sure they ate breakfast together, and this morning was no different. Usually, they talked about what Patricia’s day would be like, but on this Friday, her daughter sat silently picking at her food. They had known for over a month that this moment was coming, but now that it had finally arrived they were both overwhelmed with feelings of sadness, regret and a deep sense of anxiety about the future.

Sharon sipped her coffee and watched her daughter’s disinterest in her eggs and toast. She had spent her adult life lovingly taking care of Patty. Her only child had been the center of her world. Together they had faced an endless stream of challenges, but now they faced a cruel situation that they had no control over. They were at a crossroads that threatened to have a profoundly negative effect on the rest of their lives.

As she looked at Patty, she thought about everything they had been through. She remembered the difficult birth forty-two years before that had deprived her daughter’s brain of oxygen resulting in a lifetime of health issues that included having multiple seizures almost daily, compromised motor function that required the use of a walker for her balance as well as significant hearing and vision loss. Her intellectual function, based on IQ tests, measured below 70, and that was the criteria the state used to classify her as having a mild developmental disability. One area of cognitive function that was not affected, however, was her ability to speak clearly and be understood. In fact, she was quite the talker, so it concerned Sharon to see her daughter sitting in silence. She decided to see if she could get her to open up.

“How are you feeling about today, sweetheart? What are you thinking?” Patty just shrugged and continued picking at her breakfast. Sharon had been worried about how her daughter was going to handle losing her job. It was such an important part of her life, but the corporation she worked for had been bought out and the new owners were laying off personnel at an alarming rate. Now many families were experiencing the same anguish.

Patty finally looked up, and Sharon took a moment to check the bandage that was still in place over her daughter’s right eye. On Tuesday evening, Patty was standing in the living room when she had a seizure. As she fell, she hit her head on the edge of the coffee table. The injury had required five stitches, but fortunately, there was no concussion, just some lingering discomfort.

Sharon reached over and gently brushed the hair away from Patty’s face. “How is the headache this morning? Any better?”

“It’s not too bad.” Patty did not want to admit that her head was still hurting, for fear that her mother wouldn’t let her go to work.

She was right. Sharon made Patty stay home and rest on Wednesday and Thursday, and now she was concerned that the stress of the next eight hours would trigger more seizures, but she did not want to deny her daughter the chance to spend her last day with those she cared about and who cared about her.

There was a long pause and then Patty softly said, “Why is this happening? I thought I was a good worker. I always did my best, but I guess that wasn’t enough.” Patty looked up at mom, “Did I do something wrong?”

Sharon shook her head and did her best to control her emotions. “Of course not. You were an excellent employee.”

Patty was not convinced. “I know I couldn’t work as fast as some of the other people, but I tried to keep up. Why are they taking my job away?”

Her mother reached out and held her hand, “This is not your fault. Everyone who worked there did a good job. The decision to cut back employees was made by business people in an office somewhere. I don’t think they understand what your job means to you, and they don’t appreciate how hard you’ve worked.”

Patty’s face clouded with confusion, “But why do these people want to make us lose our jobs? I want to work. I don’t want to sit at home. I love doing my job, and I enjoy being with my friends.”

Sharon took a deep breath and attempted to explain something she didn’t fully understand herself. “They say it’s all about money and making the company more profitable.”  But, although she didn’t say it out loud, it seemed to her like the layoffs were unfairly targeting people who were vulnerable in the job market. In her opinion, it was a familiar story. Sharon believed that people with disabilities were too often the last hired and the first fired.

Patty shook her head, “But even if I somehow got another job, who is going to help me when I have a seizure? What if I fall and get hurt again? They wouldn’t know me the way these people do.”

It was one of Sharon’s primary concerns as well. The previous management had done everything they could to assist her daughter regarding her health and safety, but she knew that was a rarity. It was unlikely to happen again – even if someone was willing to hire Patty.

And that was the problem. It was difficult for people with developmental disabilities to find employment in the community. Patty had searched for years for a company that would give her the opportunity to work, and Sharon realized how lucky they were to have found them.

None of this made sense to Patty, “If we are good workers they should not do this to us.”

“Sometimes people aren’t aware of how they are hurting others.” Sharon paused, knowing it was far more likely they just didn’t care. She tried to think of a way to make it less painful, but all she could do was tell the truth. “They don’t realize how important your job is in your life. Unfortunately, they base their decisions on financial considerations which they view as more important than letting you continue to work.”

Patty slumped down in her chair. Sharon had not seen her daughter this despondent since her father died three years ago. On that occasion, it was not only the heartbreaking loss but also the sudden shock of his death that made it so difficult for Patty to handle. It had been weeks before she felt like going back to work, but when she did, her job was waiting for her, and she was welcomed back with open arms. The love and kindness that her coworkers and supervisors shared with her during that difficult time meant the world to her, and to her mother as well. Sharon doubted if she would have been treated the same way at most other jobs.

Patty was having trouble following her mom’s explanation, “What do you mean about financial considerations?”

Sharon tried to make it clearer. “They are concerned about how much money they have to pay you and how much it costs them to have you as an employee.”

Patty said, “Of course I like being paid. I want to make money, but that is not why I enjoy working there. I love it there because it makes me feel good, and it makes me feel useful. My friends are there, and we have fun working together. Why don’t the people who are making us quit want us to be happy? What is more important than that?”

Sharon knew in her heart that there was nothing more important than that. Her daughter seemed to understand what the shareholders could not. Ever since hearing the news a month ago about the layoffs, Sharon had wondered whether those in power had stopped to consider the feelings of those whose lives they were about to tear apart. Were they clueless and oblivious or were they cold and calculating as they focused exclusively on the bottom line?

Sharon, along with other concerned parents and guardians, had met with the new management of the store, but in the end, there was nothing they could do to save the jobs. They were all heartbroken and furious. A few of their loved ones could possibly find other employment, but typically it would be with fewer hours. Unfortunately, Patty would most likely not be one of them. Men and women, who had given everything to their jobs, were now the innocent victims of corporate downsizing, and it was devastating to them and their families.

Patty suddenly broke her mother’s train of thought, “Mom, Dad always told me how proud he was of me for being able to get and keep a job. Was that the truth? Did he really mean it?”

Sharon experienced the familiar pain that she always felt when she thought about life without her husband. “Yes, darling. He meant every word. Your father knew how difficult it was for you to go to work each day knowing you could have a seizure at any moment. He admired how you were able to work steadily even though the weakness in your legs made it hard for you to stand for very long. He was so proud when you were voted employee of the month, and he loved picking you up at work so he could hear about your day.”

In almost a whisper Patty said, “I miss him so much. I wish he was here with us this morning. Maybe he would know what to do so I could keep my job.”

Sharon did her best to maintain an even tone of voice. “You know how much Daddy loved you, but even he would not be able to stop this. The company has made its decision, and we are at their mercy.”

She glanced at her watch and saw that it was time for them to make the drive to work one final time. “We need to go.”

Sharon stood up from the table and put the breakfast dishes in the sink. Then she moved Patty’s walker into position. Carefully her daughter stood up and positioned her hands on the device that had allowed her to move freely for years.

“It’s cold out this morning,” Sharon said as she helped her put on a jacket.

Patty asked, “Where’s my cap?”

“It’s on the counter.” As Sharon picked it up she saw Patty’s most recent service pin attached to it. The inscription spelled out the company’s name and fourteen years of service. Under that, it said Work with dignity. Sharon couldn’t help but feel bitter towards the business people who did not appreciate the amazing accomplishment that those fourteen years represented.

For a significant part of her daughter’s adult life, the retailer had been her place of employment. But even more than that, it was a second home, and her coworkers and supervisors were important to her. That was something the new management refused to try to understand.

When Patty was growing up, her parents had been told repeatedly that she would never be able to hold down a job. Every weekday morning when she went to work, she was defying the odds. But those with power did not seem to want to put a human face on their decision. They did not want to listen to the families who had invested so much in the vocational success of their children. They did not want to know about the heartache their decision was causing.

Patty carefully put on her cap, being careful not to bump the bandage over her eye. In a voice filled with disappointment, she said, “I was really looking forward to getting the service pin for fifteen years. Only a couple of my friends have them.”

Sharon put her arm around the shoulder of her petite daughter. “I am very proud of you, Patty. I wish there was something I could do to keep this from happening to you and everyone else. It’s not fair, and it’s not right.”

They slowly walked side by side to the front door. Sharon gently reached out and turned Patty’s face towards her. “Are you sure you want to be there today? It will be emotional. No one will blame you if you don’t go in.”

Patty looked up at her mother and with determination said, “I have to go. This will be the last time we are all together, and I know I will never see some of them again.”

Sharon’s heart was breaking. Even though her daughter had created years of beautiful memories, it was the future that concerned them now. What would become of her daughter and the others? 

By terminating her employment, the decision makers were destroying Patty’s sense of belonging. They were devaluing the time and effort she had put into her job. They were telling her that all her years of commitment and dedication did not matter just because they wanted to cut overhead and save money. By taking away her job, they were taking away her sense of purpose. Many of her goals in life revolved around her work, and now those were about to vanish. The new owners were disrespecting her as a person. Her dignity, her pride and her self-esteem were being damaged by people whose quest for financial gain was leaving broken lives behind. The relentless chase for bigger corporate profits meant that the individuals who would have the most difficulty finding new jobs were being pushed aside.

The business world just didn’t seem to understand that higher profits came at a human price.

Sharon opened the front door, and looked at her daughter, “I love you, Patty.” Then she watched with pride as her daughter carefully stepped outside to go to work for what could possibly be the last time.

 

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