When the coronavirus pandemic forced Great Bay Services to temporarily shut down its day center for people with disabilities, Marynia Page knew she would have to stay home.
For 17 years, Page and her husband have cared for his brother, Larry, who is 59 and has Down syndrome. They relied on the center because it gave Larry a place to go while they worked.
Page, 62, took a leave from her job as a recording clerk at the Rockingham County Register of Deeds office in April to take care of Larry until Great Bay Services reopened.
She hoped her absence would be temporary, but last week the county commissioners voted 2-1 to terminate her employment.
The termination was made at the recommendation of Register of Deeds Cathy Stacey, who wrote Page on Sept. 3 that she was seeking her removal “due to your incapacity to perform your essential job functions and for the good of the county institution(s) to which you are assigned.”
Page said she enjoyed her job and didn’t want to leave. She said her options were to return to work, resign or face possible termination.
“I couldn’t go back to work because I had to be here with Larry, and I didn’t want to resign because if I resigned it was like I was voluntarily leaving my job. If I wanted to leave my job I wanted it to be on my own volition,” she said.
Page’s situation isn’t unique.
Others are finding themselves out of a job after taking a leave during the pandemic for personal reasons. In some cases, they have taken legal action.
Exeter Health Resources Inc. and Core Physicians LLC are facing lawsuits recently filed by two dental hygienists who formerly worked at Core Pediatric Dentistry.
Cristin Wagner of Barrington and Margaret Camlin of Exeter brought complaints in Rockingham County Superior Court last month alleging wrongful termination.
“These are two individuals that made the right choice for their families and to slow the spread of COVID-19 and they were fired for it,” said Sean List, their Manchester attorney.
Conflict outside work
The New Hampshire Department of Labor has received a number of calls from concerned employees regarding their employment status during the pandemic. Because many of the applicable job protections are federal, the calls have been referred to the U.S. Department of Labor, according to Commissioner Ken Merrifield.
At the same time, labor officials are hearing complaints from employers.
“Probably the larger number of calls have come to us from employers who are struggling to operate their businesses because they have employees who are refusing to come back to work,” he said. “We don’t have any authority to make someone come back to work.”
Page insists she had no choice.
As Larry’s cognitive functioning has declined, he has become unable to care for himself and can’t be left alone, she said.
“I share the same bond with him and love for him like my daughters. He is my son,” she said.
“She loves me,” Larry said with a smile as they sat on the front steps of their Exeter home.
County Commissioner Kevin Coyle voted against the termination.
“We have almost 600 employees at the county with over 50 positions open. Holding this position open for a valuable employee would not have impacted us. It was heartless to terminate her with all she is doing for her family,” he said.
Commissioner Thomas Tombarello said he followed Stacey’s recommendation, but he stressed that he would be “100%” in favor of rehiring Page if circumstances changed.
Page went on paid leave for 12 weeks starting on April 1 under the Coronavirus Response Act. She took two more leaves without pay that lasted until the end of August. When she applied for leave through the end of October, it was denied.
Page said she respects the commissioners’ decision, but she told them she wanted her record to reflect that she wasn’t terminated because of character flaws or poor performance.
The real reason, she said, is COVID-19.
Page said she has no plans to challenge the decision in court.
Hygienists fight back
Meanwhile, the dental hygienists’ legal battle is beginning.
According to their complaints, Core Pediatric Dentistry closed its offices to non-emergencies beginning on March 16 and sought to reassign staff hygienists to custodial and basic medical positions at Exeter Hospital.
Wagner and Camlin said management gave them a choice of being reassigned to positions at the hospital or taking a leave of absence while the office was closed.
Camlin chose to work custodial shifts but eventually took leave because she has two young children whose daycare shut down, according to her suit.
She said management told her not to apply for unemployment when she took her leave, but she did so later after learning that she qualified under federal and state law.
Camlin learned in early May that the practice would be reopening. She was surprised when she was notified that she was being terminated.
Her termination letter said that after a review, it was determined that she had “abandoned” her position while the organization was in a state of emergency.
“Although work was available to you, you declined that work,” the letter said, according to her suit.
List, her lawyer, said she was given the option of taking leave and then fired for making that choice.
Like Camlin, Wagner also took a leave of absence and later filed for unemployment as her two elementary-aged children began remote learning after schools were ordered to close.
She was excited to return to work when she learned that the office would be reopening as the school year was ending, the suit said, but she received a similar termination letter.
“It was simply unbelievable to her that an organization she dedicated herself to for more than 12 years would terminate her employment because she took leave to educate her children during the pandemic. Even more shocking was the fact that the defendants gave her permission to take the leave and then fired her for taking it,” Wagner’s suit said.
Exeter Health Resources and Core Physicians have not filed responses to the suit.
Debra Vasapolli, director of community relations for Exeter Health Resources, said she couldn’t comment on the lawsuits.