Fired Epping children's librarian gets public hearing
EPPING — A children's librarian who was fired over the summer because she had taken too many sick days aired her case publicly Monday as she fights to get her job back.
Tracie Wilkins stood before the board of library trustees at a hearing that was held in public at her request.Wilkins was terminated from her part-time job as children's librarian at the Harvey-Mitchell Memorial Library in July and has seen a groundswell of support from parents and other community members ever since.
Following the 90-minute hearing, library trustees will issue a written decision on whether Wilkins will return to her job no later than Dec. 30, said Michael Vose, chairman of the board of library trustees.
Library officials have been tight-lipped about the firing because it's a personnel matter, but had no choice but to speak publicly about Wilkins' employment at the hearing.
With lawyers for Wilkins and the trustees present, Library Director Bradley Green said Wilkins, who worked 32 hours a week, was told in July 2012 that she would be allowed 10 unpaid sick days a year and would face termination if she exceeded the number.
"This was in response to many years of Tracie taking far too many days off from work. Between January 2012 and July 2012, for example, Tracie took 15 days. The trustees were fed up with Tracie's chronic absences from work and the disruptions they caused. They initiated the attendance policy because they were out of patience with Tracie being an unreliable employee because of her chronic absences from work," he told trustees.
Wilkins didn't deny her absences, saying they were mostly due to her clinical depression.
Green said Wilkins reached her limit of 10 sick days by July 16, at which point she was warned that she would lose her job if she took another day.
Green said Wilkins never told him that the attendance policy was unfair between July 2012 and July 2013.
He complained about how her absences disrupted the library and forced the cancellation of story times and other activities when she failed to show up and he wasn't able to find substitutes.
He also said her missed days made it difficult for him to monitor both floors of the library, which created safety concerns. He was forced to close the children's room several times, he said.
When questioned by John Meyer, Wilkins' attorney, Green said full-time staff members are allowed up to 12 paid sick days a year. Meyer then pressed Green to explain how many additional unpaid weeks those staffers are allowed under the Family Medical Leave Act. Green wouldn't answer, but Meyer said they're entitled to up to 12 weeks.
Wilkins, who was hired in 2002, presented information from her primary care physician confirming her clinical depression.
She also spoke about her positive performance evaluations given by Green in past years. She said she received above average ratings and that she was described as a "highly valued employee."
She said the evaluations never mentioned anything about her absences being disruptive.
Wilkins said she always tried to make sure there was a box with items for a substitute to use in her place when she missed work.
She admitted that shortly before she was fired, she wrote a letter of resignation because she felt "under pressure" after the library trustees "drew a line in the sand" over the absences. Green later found the letter on a computer, but the letter was never submitted.A few weeks after she was fired, Wilkins said she received a letter from trustees telling her that was being placed on "paid administrative leave" pending the outcome of her hearing.
In early November, trustees asked to meet with Wilkins to make an offer without attorneys present.
She said she rejected the offer, saying trustees proposed making her a 16-hour-a-week children's room assistant with fewer responsibilities.
Wilkins now hopes trustees will reverse their decision.
An online petition and other supporters have urged the board to reinstate Wilkins.
"The comments on the petition and the letters of support and emails have been overwhelming and make me feel that what I have been doing at the library was appreciated and had value and is missed. I think to leave that kind of a hole in the lives of the children in town and the families makes it a bigger issue than just my job and what the library can offer the town," she said.
A mother of three children, resident Susan Hartford spoke in support of Wilkins.
"I can't imagine a better children's librarian," she said, calling Wilkins a "treasure in this town."Amanda Reynolds Cooper, Epping's former library director, also spoke highly of Wilkins when she worked with her before she left to become director at the Lane Memorial Library in Hampton.
"Tracie was an above and beyond employee. The work that she brought to Harvey-Mitchell Memorial Library is above any standard anyone could expect for a children's librarian," she told trustees.
Sandy Cray, who brought her grandchildren to the library when Wilkins was there, described her as someone who created a "very nurturing atmosphere."