When forced to decide between caring for her 18-month-old granddaughter while her parents were stranded in New Orleans or showing up for her job, Barbara Roberts (search) chose to be a grandma. And for that, she was fired.
Roberts, 54, had driven 200 miles from her home in Mount Vernon to Columbia on Aug. 27, the Saturday before Hurricane Katrina (search) came ashore, to care for granddaughter Trisana for a couple of days. Her daughter, Tina Roberts, and son-in-law, Chris Hardin, were in New Orleans.
It was supposed to be a weekend business trip for the couple, and Roberts, who had used up her allotted time off in her assembly line job at Positronic Industries, had planned to be back to work on Monday. Her daughter had even arranged for another baby sitter to spend Sunday night with Trisana so Roberts could get home in time.
But when her son-in-law tried to schedule the flight home on the afternoon of Aug. 27, he was told all flights had been canceled because of the approaching hurricane.
"There was a Category 5 hurricane with a bull's-eye on our butts, so we called Barb and said we didn't know when we would be coming home," said Hardin, a professor at the University of Missouri School of Medicine. "We truly didn't know what would happen down there."
With no other relatives in the area to take care of the child, Roberts said she had no choice but to call work on Aug. 29, the day the hurricane hit, and tell her boss that she would be missing a few days.
"There was no decision to make — it was already made," Roberts said. "My daughter could have died down there. This was family. You don't walk out on a child — especially my grandbaby."
Hardin and his wife spent several days locked down in a hotel — safe from the chaos that befell most of New Orleans after the levees broke — and finally made it back to Columbia on Thursday, Sept. 1. Shaken up, they asked Roberts to stay one more day.
She says she was told on the phone that she was going to be fired. And on Sept. 6, she was.
"All I know for sure is that I had missed so many hours, and then this came up," Roberts said. "Usually you have a certain amount of vacation time, and I had used it up. You're also allowed so many unpaid days off, and I'd used them up, too. Fact is, I missed the allotted time and I got fired."
In response to questions about Roberts' termination, Positronic Industries President John Gentry said the company had made cash donations to relief efforts for Hurricane Katrina victims, but he declined to talk about Roberts. The company manufactures electrical connectors.
Hardin said his mother-in-law's firing was "absolutely unethical."
"People speak of family values, and I don't see what's a more central family value than a grandmother stepping up in this sort of situation," he said.
"I sit here trying to imagine what kind of world it would be if grandmothers didn't make that decision."