Four Hooksett, N.H., town employees are out of a job, fired for gossiping. The controversy over the decision led to a public hearing on the matter last week.
The former employees said they were talking about a rumor that was making its way around town about Town Administrator David Jodoin's relationship with another town employee. Jodoin complained to the Hooksett Town Council, which then launched an investigation that resulted in the firings of the women, all of them longtime employees with spotless work records, according to WCVB-TV in Boston.
The employees, identified as former Director of Assessing Sandy Piper, former code enforcement Officer Michelle Bonsteel, and their assistants, Jessica Skorupski and Joanne Drewniak, have their own lawyer and are trying to get their jobs back.
"People talk amongst other people, and that is what we were doing. We were friends," Piper said. "The rumor came from outside. I mean, people in town are talking," said Skorupski.
A lawyer hired by the fired workers said at a hearing that the firings were unfair because the women were not given verbal or written warnings and because other employees who also gossiped were not disciplined.
"There were questions about the fact that the townspeople were bringing it into Town Hall, and there was discussions about why that was the case. And the discussions focused on the fact that one employee was getting preferential treatment in terms of salary, in terms of closeness with the administrator," said the workers' attorney, B.J. Branch.
Branch also said the free-speech rights of government employees have been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court and that the Town Council doesn't have the right to fire workers.
"I'm on a roller coaster -- I go anywhere from outrage to deep depression where all I can do is cry," said Bonsteel.
"I have nightmares at night; I don't sleep that well. I'm losing all the benefits. I'm there nine years -- I have one more year to be vested. It breaks my heart to think that now I have to start all over again and go elsewhere," said Drewniak.
Council members aren't commenting, but the town lawyer, Debra Ford, said at a public hearing that the rumor the women were talking about was serious and had the potential to damage his marriage and career. The lawyer who investigated the rumors for the town, Lauren Simon Irwin said the employees' behavior was cause for discipline under personnel rules.
The Town Council has until May 25 to confirm the firings or reverse them.