Kathleen Payne should have become a welfare statistic. Instead, she just became the second woman in the history of the United Mineworkers of America to hold a district secretary/treasurer office.
When Payne's marriage fell apart a decade ago, she had a high school education, three children to feed and little child support coming in.Now Payne owns a home, a duplex and a trailer in Emery County and a another home in Salt Lake City. (Three of the four sites are rental properties.) She not only can afford to take care of her own children, but has taken two additional teenagers into her home.
Based in Emery County, Payne travels through Utah, Arizona and Wyoming meeting with her constituents to help solve their mine safety concerns and helping local union secretaries balance their books.
"I feel better now than I have in my entire life," Payne said. "I feel real good about myself and my accomplishments."
Ten years ago, any economist might have confidently predicted a life of welfare for Payne and her children.
It nearly happened.
In the early months following her divorce, Payne had to go on welfare.
"It was so degrading to have to go use food stamps," she remembered.
Driven by a steely determination to provide a decent life for herself and her children, Payne struggled to find work in Salt Lake City that would support her young family.
She worked as a waitress, a cook and finally a loan collector for banks.
She quit her job with Walker Bank when they asked her to train a newly hired man and then made the man her boss after she had trained him.
"They used to give me the excuse, `Well, he has a family to support.' I thought, `So do I! I'm a single parent with three kids.' "
Her sister and brother-in-law lived in Emery County. They urged her to move there and get a job in the mines.
"I kept saying, `No way. I won't go underground.' But I couldn't make things work in Salt Lake. If my kids needed shoes, the only place I could get the money for them was out of my grocery budget, and I was too proud to go back on public assistance."
So, at 36, she became a miner. After six years underground, she ran for office in her local union and won.
Last November, she launched a three-state campaign for the district office. Only one other woman had won such an office.
Lax safety practices in the mine spurred Payne in her pursuit of the office. In her years underground, she had watched a dangerous profession become increasingly deadly as the federal government repeatedly cut back the budget for the Mine Safety and Health Administration and layoffs forced a shrinking force of miners to cut corners to meet quotas.
"I thought I could help our rank and file members better in this position," she said.
For the six months of the campaign, she worked full time in the mines and drove from state to state during her spare hours to meet with every union local in the tri-state district.
"I would get off work at midnight and then get up again at 3 a.m.," she said.
In April, she won her office by eight votes, beating out three other candidates, including the incumbent.
Collectors back at the bank she left aren't making much more now than they did 10 years ago when she quit, she said.
But Payne's wages have tripled and her benefits still amaze her. "I can afford to take my kids to the doctor when they get sick. When they need a pair of shoes, I don't have to decide which child needs them the worst. I never really thought I would get this far. I thought you got married and lived happily ever after. It didn't quite work out this way. But I feel I've accomplished so much!"