My coworkers did the nicest thing ever for me and it saved my life

My husband was in the throes of long-term unemployment; we had already foreclosed on our home and moved into a scary neighborhood that I could afford on my pathetic but steady salary. Then I lost my job. Welcome to the Great Recession.

I immediately applied to every temp agency in the city and immediately landed a position with a start-up wholesale insurance company employing about 50 people that had only been in business two years. It didn’t pay the same money as my miserable lost corporate job, and I lost 20% of my weekly pay every unpaid holiday, but I could pay my cheap slum rent and the people I was working for were wonderful.

There was very little left over after bills were paid, but after ruined credit and a foreclosure, we were used to doing without. I packed lunch every day instead of joining my coworkers in restaurants, worked every hour my supervisor would give me, volunteered for overtime, worked sick so as not to cut my paycheck. I never missed a day for a year and my supervisor apologized that she was not in a position to hire me permanently.

I took a second job, driving on weekends, to pay for the failed transmission on my 25-year-old car. It was too much. After a month without a day off, I was so exhausted I tripped over my own feet and fell and broke my arm.

The first thought was, I have lost both my jobs. My second thought was, I have no health insurance. My third thought was, these groceries have to be put away before I can go to the emergency room.

I called both supervisors on Monday to explain what happened and that it would be three months before I could work again, and I tried to resign. Both supervisors said no, that my jobs would be waiting for me.

Ho, ho! You all thought that was the end of the story, that keeping my jobs is the nicest thing that was ever done for me. But no!

I called the utility companies, including my badly needed ADT burglar alarm, to explain that I would be unable to pay my bills for three months, and why I would have no income. All the utilities set me up so I wouldn’t get disconnected, and ADT even credited my account, giving me three months service free.

Still not the nicest thing

With destroyed credit, there was no credit card to fall back on, but there was enough in my savings to pay three months rent, and my kitchen was stocked with food. If we were very careful, and if I didn’t need surgery, we’d be okay; my only worry was paying for gasoline and the medical expenses.

Because I was a contractor with a temp agency, my supervisor at the insurance company didn’t have any of my private information. But she had my cell because I’d called her. One month after the fall, she phoned to ask how I am and could I give her my address; my coworkers were collecting a potluck for us and she wanted to deliver it. I was too embarrassed about my slum address to give it to her, and instead sent my mother-in-law to pick up.

Still not the nicest thing.

My mother-in-law arrived bearing a grocery bag. I expected a couple casseroles and that’s what we got. And at the bottom, a greeting card. Again, after a year of coworker birthday cards and cakes and baby and wedding showers from these wonderful people I worked for, I was not surprised by a greeting card.

I opened the envelope and pulled out a get well card signed by everyone in the company, telling me they couldn’t wait for me to come back.

Still not the nicest thing.

Inside the greeting card was a $300 gift card from a local supermarket that also sold gasoline, and almost $600 in cash. My coworkers who knew we were living paycheck to paycheck collected not only a potluck, but enough cash to get us by until I could come back.

I wept. After 20 years of abuse and being taken advantage of by my past jobs, I got genuine concern, caring, and love from people I had felt inferior to and inadequate around. I was so embarrassed about being so poor compared to my affluent, sophisticated coworkers that I hid a great deal and they really didn’t know me very well. Yet they had done this of their own volition; it was a private thing among the employees, not from the company. Even people in our satellite office on the other end of the country that I had never met had contributed. I didn’t realize how scared I had been until I had that money in my hand. Now my slumlord wouldn’t need to know that I wasn’t working and he wouldn’t have to put us on the street. I phoned the office and I thanked them and I wept.

I finally realized that I was poor, we were struggling, I didn’t know anything about fancy restaurants or European vacations, I could only contribute a few cans to the Christmas food drive instead of bagfuls, but I was accepted and respected and I was a good worker and they wanted me back and they cared about us. I wept.

That was the nicest thing that has ever been done for me

A year later, the utility bills were finally current again, and these same people threw me a surprise 50th birthday party with cake and decorations and gifts. And a year after that, 3 years after they met me, they made my 51st birthday my official hire date. Now for the first time in my life, I’m not worried about the bills, I own more than one pair of shoes, I have 3 credit cards and I’m planning a vacation and hoping for a mortgage soon.

I love these people and they genuinely love me and the greeting card is in a frame on my desk. I will never work for anyone else.

Susan D Smith has a BA in English and Education from Virginia Tech.

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