Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Pam Melson

My first reaction to the story of Pam Melson was along the lines of "How on earth can they get away with this?"

Pam Melson wants to donate one of her two healthy kidneys to a dying friend.

But officials at the Waynesboro, Tenn., factory where she works refuse to give her time off, even without pay — a decision that a business ethicist and organ donation experts find troubling.

"They said letting me off to get this surgery would be like someone getting let off for getting breast implants," said Melson, who has worked at the factory for four years. "I think what I'm trying to do is a little more important than getting breast implants."

Dave Roberts, Tennessee Apparel's vice president of manufacturing, said he's not trying to discourage Melson from going through with the donation. But, he said, the Tullahoma-based company won't hold her job for her.

"If she decides to do that we'll give her every consideration to come back to work," he said. "She would come back as a new employee."

Melson, 31, is her family's sole financial provider since the store where her husband worked went out of business, and she said she can't afford to lose her job.

So, the transplant operation originally scheduled to take place this month at Vanderbilt University Medical Center has been postponed until officials at Tennessee Apparel relent or another donor is found.

You would think that if you wanted to help a dying friend, your bosses would give you a little bit more consideration than that. She's even willing to take off without pay, for Chrissakes, but the company is going to kick her down to the bottom of the seniority list - that is, if she even has a job when she's ready to come back.

While the operation may be elective for Melson, it's not for 36-year-old Donnie Hammack, who is married to Melson's distant cousin.

Hammack's transplant surgeon, Dr. Mark A. Wigger of Vanderbilt, said he could probably survive for another five years. But if Hammack relies on the national waiting list to get a kidney, he could die waiting.

Average wait times are anywhere from two to five years, according to Janet Jarrard, Tennessee Donor Services' public education coordinator. However, Jarrard said, she's heard of people waiting for as long as 10 years.

In 2006, 4,079 people in the U.S. died waiting for a kidney. Eighty-five of them were Tennesseans, she said.

While Donnie Hammack might die waiting on a kidney, his wife's cousin is willing to provide hers. But her employers are giving her grief about taking off work for the surgery, perhaps because they suggest that Pam Melson isn't exactly a model employee:

Tennessee Apparel's Roberts said the primary reason Melson's request was denied is her "excessive absenteeism." He declined to say how many days she's missed.

Melson, who works on military pants manufactured at the factory, said she gets one week of vacation each year. She said she's missed more than a month of work this year, primarily to care for her children when they were sick.

"I have three children. When they are sick it's my job to take care of them," she said. "I told (the company)don't ask me to pick my job over my kids because I will not do it."

Despite her absenteeism, Melson and Hammack don't understand why company officials won't grant her a four- to six-week leave, considering that she isn't asking to be paid and Hammack's Medicaid would pay for medical expenses.

"My reaction is the guy has no heart," Hammack said.

I've translated enough boss-speak over the years to know that when management complains of "excessive absenteeism", that's just part of the story. The bosses at Tennessee Apparel figure that Melson is unreliable and uses her kids as an excuse to not show up for work. Still, in my experience, the subject of absenteeism generally doesn't come up unless there are performance problems in other areas.

So, if Melson's such a bad employee, why don't they just fire her? Maybe it's because they can't. Not because of labor laws or anything, but because, even in a podunk like Waynesboro, they'd have a hard time filling her position for what they're willing to pay. Tennessee Apparel doesn't want to pay overtime, so they threaten Melson with losing her job to keep her on the line sewing those fatigues.

Or consider this: Maybe Melson isn't such an unproductive employee after all, but it hacks the bosses off that she's always calling off work to stay home with the kids, and they need a good excuse to get rid of her. So maybe they'd just as soon see Melson take off to donate her kidney to Hammack, which would then free the company up to hire somebody who would rather sew pants than take care of her kid's runny nose. We could solve a lot of those problems if we had better laws in this country mandating family leave.

Meanwhile, Donnie Hammack is wondering how much longer he has to live because a willing organ donor's employers want to play games instead of doing the right thing and letting Pam Melson off work to donate her kidney, and letting her have her job back when she's able to work, if she wants it.

( Tennessee Guerilla Women note the ties between Tennessee Apparel's CEO and the Bush Administration. I guess that's how you get a contract to sew army pants. As we say in these parts, "That's bidness...")

UPDATE: Tennessee Apparel revises its policy; Pam Melson will be allowed time off to donate her kidney after all. Never underestimate the power of bad publicity.