As the St. John Animal Care Center moves ahead with a streamlined board of directors and new volunteer efforts, the organization’s decision to fire one long-term employee has rifled more than a few feathers.
As the shelter manager for more than six years, Connie Joseph was responsible for taking care of the numerous cats in the building, cleaning their cages, their eyes, noses and bottoms. Joseph did even more than that as well, often taking kittens home to heal them back to health for eventual adoption and diagnosing infections she could treat among many other things.
While acknowledging her years of dedication to the organization the ACC board, however, voted to terminate Joseph last month. Several press releases issued by the organization after that skirted the issue, laying praise on Joseph without stating that she was no longer shelter manager.
The firing and the manner in which the news was laid on Joseph has angered many ACC supporters.
“The president at the time and a board member walked into the shelter on a Tuesday last month and said we were having a meeting,” said Joseph. “They handed me an envelope and told me to read it.”
The letter read in part “it is with deep regret that we must inform you that your position with the Animal Care Center of St. John, as written, is being terminated, effective immediately.”
“They gave me severance pay and a cardboard box and 10 minutes to get my stuff,” said Joseph. “They changed the lock on the door the minute I walked out.”
While the ACC officials gave Joseph severance pay, the letter was the first hint that she would no longer have her full time, salaried position, explained the former shelter manager.
The officials then asked Joseph to work two days a week, for four hours each day, at the shelter and gave her a new key. Joseph agreed to the eight hours of work a week for one simple reason, she explained.
“No matter what happens, I care for my kitties,” said Joseph. “To go from 50 hours a week to eight hours; I can’t live on that. No one can.”
The sudden absence of a full-time job was shocking enough for Joseph, but the real heart-break was not being around her beloved cats, she explained.
“They ripped my heart out,” Joseph said.
When news of Joseph’s termination spread across the island, many ACC supporters were outraged. At the group’s January 26 annual meeting at the Gifft Hill School, Joseph’s sister Debbie Penn gave an eloquent and heart-felt presentation detailing Joseph’s dedication to the organization. The speech was met with many tears and a standing ovation from Joseph’s staunch supporters.
“The week before the annual meeting I learned that Connie Joseph was removed from her position at the shelter,” ACC supporter Lucy Banks wrote to a board member. “Since that time I have heard and read nothing but accolades for the work she has done regarding the shelter animals. I had hoped by attending the meeting, we would learn why that decision was made by the board.”
“Instead, there seemed to be a cloud hanging over the room, and only a single contribution to the subject, by Connie’s sister,” Banks wrote. “Three little words — I am confused.”
If Joseph was doing such a great job, why eliminate her, questioned Banks.
ACC officials maintained that the position for which Joseph was hired no longer existed. Instead, the organization, in the face of serious financial difficulties, was in need of a Shelter Administrator capable of handling more computer and Web-based duties, explained recently elected ACC president B.J. Harris.
“Basically the ACC Board of Directors really came to a clear understanding late fall of last year that we had to restructure,” said Harris. “We had to do something different in order for the shelter to continue to provide service to the animals of St. John and that restructuring had to be pretty dramatic.”
Part of the ACC’s restructuring included reducing its board from 15 to eight members, expanding its committee structure to be more efficient and making some difficult decisions, according to Harris.
“We also had to make some painful decisions about the shelter management,” she said. “With our limited resources we found that the best route to take was to basically eliminate the current job and create a new position that would be more encompassing.”
“The new position would include not just management of the shelter but management of the business of the ACC and that means we needed someone in there who had Web skills, could coordinate the volunteers and who could create our advertising both Web and print based,” said Harris.
“We needed someone who had a lot more technical ability because we found we were able to generate much more income through the Web,” said the ACC president. “It really became a completely different job.”
The organization could not afford to staff Joseph’s position in addition to the new one the board decided it needed, Harris explained.
“Where Connie was particularly great is with the cats,” said Harris. “She is an angel with the cats and no one did that better than her. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to service the needs of the shelter and we can’t afford to keep her full time and have an administrator.”
That explanation, however didn’t quell the doubts of some of Connies’s supporters.
“Somehow it does not seem a good business practice to eliminate one necessary obligation to fulfill another,” wrote Banks. “The first act of the ACC is to care for the animals at hand, and a caretaker was in place. If there were not sufficient funds to cover an administrator, then one should not have been hired until that time when the funds could be secured.”
“I feel that a volunteer candidate could have been found to fill the position until the funds were available,” Banks wrote.
Another ACC supporter was brought to tears by the news of Joseph’s termination.
“When I heard about it, I burst into tears,” said Jenny Stark. “I feel that if they take Connie away from the shelter, they are ripping the heart out of the Animal Care Center of St. John. I just want to know who is going to love the animals now.”