Santa Rosa credit unionhires good Samaritan fired by US Bank for giving $20 of her own money to a struggling customer

Emily James, by all accounts, is uncommonly generous. On Christmas Eve, she paid dearly for it.

A senior customer service officer at a U.S. Bank call center in Portland, Oregon, she was on the phone with a customer in distress.

He’d deposited his paycheck, but the bank put a hold on it. Earlier in the day, he’d been assured the hold would be lifted, and that he’d soon be able to buy gifts for his children. It wasn’t. Stranded at a gas station, his tank empty, he called the bank and spoke to James, who tried to get the hold lifted. Unable to do that, she drove 20 minutes - on her break - and handed him $20.

Instead of celebrating her for that stellar customer service, U.S. Bank fired her, along with the manager who approved the trip, for an unauthorized interaction with a customer.

In a twist reminiscent of “It’s Wonderful Life,” the 33-year-old good Samaritan has landed on her feet - in Santa Rosa. Impressed by her willingness to go above and beyond the call of duty, Community First Credit Union invited James to fly down for a series of interviews. A week later, Community First offered her a job as a training specialist.

“Their attitude was, ‘Hey, we see that this person cares, and that’s the kind of person we want working for us,’?” said James, who has lived in Portland for the last 25 years.

Community First was impressed by James’ willingness to go above and beyond the call. “This is something we encourage,” said David Williams, the credit union’s marketing chief. “We try to hire people with that sort of helpful DNA.”

How soon does she start?

“As soon as I find a place to live,” James said.

By coincidence, Community First had bestowed its most recent Employee of the Quarter Award on a woman who came to the aid of a distressed customer. An elderly woman walked out of the Lakeport branch, only to discover that her car was stolen. When she returned to the credit union, loan officer Alexandra Wiggs took her by the hand, called the police, helped the woman fill out a police report, then drove her home.

“We gave Alex an award for that,” Williams said. “What Emily did wasn’t that dissimilar” - although the result certainly was. “I thought, I want to meet this woman.”

He’d learned about James while reading a Feb. 1 story by Nicholas Kristof, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the New York Times. After the Oregonian in Portland first told James’ story in January, Kristof wrote a column about her, eviscerating U.S. Bank, and holding it up as an example of “how some companies have lost their souls.”

So comprehensive was his takedown that the bank’s CEO, Andrew Cecere phoned him shortly after his story appeared online. “This is not who we are,” Cecere insisted. Shifting into damage control mode, the bank offered James and her boss their jobs back.

Thanks but no thanks, replied James, who didn’t trust the bank to treat her fairly. She worried about retaliation, “just based on the way they’d talked to me, and treated me.”

Fired with no severance, unable to collect unemployment benefits or qualify for food stamps during the month of January, she sold her plasma, and returned used cans - “anything I could do for extra cash.”

Unable to afford her $2,200-a-month diabetes medication without her company-paid medical insurance, she has simply gone without.

In the wake of Kristof’s column which reached a global audience, she was inundated with messages from well-wishers and some potential employers. “It was overwhelming and humbling,” she recalled.

Early in the courtship, Williams of Community First asked James if she’d be willing to relocate to Santa Rosa. She replied immediately in the affirmative. “The weather sucks here,” she said.

James visited Community First’s offices on Valentine’s Day. “It wasn’t the nervous jitters you get for an interview,” she recalled. “The culture there is great. Everybody was super kind from the get-go.”

The culture of the Santa Rosa credit union contrasts sharply with that of the stockholder-owned banking colossus James had just left. A credit union is a nonprofit cooperative, owned by its members, “the very people who use us,” Williams said. They’re also local by nature. Community First only takes deposits from, and makes loans to, customers “in our five-county footprint.”

James, by all accounts, was a natural fit. When the Community First employees who’d met and interviewed her compared notes, they agreed she was “a credit union person in a banker’s body,” Williams said.

Community First had intended to beef up its training department, “and then Emily fell out of the sky,” he said.

“She’ll be a great asset to our members,” Williams said. “And she can train people to be like her. She can make us better.”

James is eager to get started - as soon as she can find housing for herself and her dependents: Domino, a half-Great Dane rescue “whose legs operate independently from one another - she’s a big doofus but I love her to death”; and the terrier Harley Quinn, her emotional support animal. Both are featured on the Instagram account @DominoHarleyQuinn, “because I am that dog parent.”

Although she knows few people in Sonoma County, and will be leaving many friends behind, James is “more excited than nervous” about the move.

If you let fear govern your decisions, she said, “you’re never going to grow and learn.”

And there is the weather.

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