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Fired county worker hired back

Co-workers and union members gather outside the Department of Health and Social Services building yesterday to show their solidarity for county employee Stephanie Cook who was fired for sending a questionable e-mail during the chaos of the Biscuit fire. She returned to work yesterday after her boss admitted her dismissal was caused by a stress induced overreaction. (Stephen M. Corley/ The Daily Triplicate).
Co-workers and union members gather outside the Department of Health and Social Services building yesterday to show their solidarity for county employee Stephanie Cook who was fired for sending a questionable e-mail during the chaos of the Biscuit fire. She returned to work yesterday after her boss admitted her dismissal was caused by a stress induced overreaction. (Stephen M. Corley/ The Daily Triplicate).

By Jennifer Henion

Triplicate staff writer

Fired Del Norte County employee Stephanie Cook was back on the job yesterday after her boss admitted overstressed administrators overreacted to an e-mail she sent last month.

A group of fellow employees and union members gathered in front of the Health and Social Services building yesterday during a lunch break to show their solidarity and support for Cook and another fired employee, Jason Hunter.

"I am glad to be back, but it's a hollow victory. My 10-year-old daughter is still very stressed because she has seen me and my family be a wreck these past weeks from our stress," Cook said.

Cook and Hunter, her brother, were both fired from their county jobs in July because of an e-mail Cook sent about the Sour-Biscuit Fire.

Hunter has not yet been reinstated.

The e-mail was a request for clarification about several rumors circulating about the fire, which had spread five miles toward Gasquet the day before.

Cook said rumors of people dying from the fire and an impending power outage and water shortage had many county employees worried for their own families, as well as for clients of the Department of Health and Social Services, where she works.

After listing the numerous frightening rumors, Cook sent the e-mail to a leading coordinator of Del Norte County's Office of Emergency Services, Alan Winogradov.

Winogradov is also an employee of the county's Information Services Department where Hunter was employed before his dismissal.

When Hunter heard of his sister's concerns, he recommended she e-mail Winogradov, the one person who should have the most accurate information.

County officials at first said they believed the questions came from a high-ranking state official, even though Cook used her full name and made no secret of where she was.

When county officials realized their error, they labeled the e-mail a hoax and reprimanded both employees for taking up valuable time while officials were trying to handle a state of emergency.

Hunter and Cook were fired by their department heads the same week. Both filed appeals to the disciplinary action.

On Tuesday, Health and Social Services Director Gary Blatnik drafted a letter to change the disciplinary action against Cook from dismissal to a three-day suspension without pay and ordered her back to work at 8 a.m. Wednesday morning.

"There was no apology in it. It's just kind of saying ‘come back to work and take this course of corrective action,'" Cook said.

The letter from Blatnik to Cook repeatedly labeled her e-mail as inappropriate and said the "reduction in discipline does not constitute an exoneration of (her) conduct."

Blatnik did say, however, that his new decision was the result of an investigation into the events of July 29, when the e-mail was sent.

"Within the context of such a condition of stress (on that day) perhaps your inappropriate actions may be viewed in a more sympathetic light," he said.

Cook said she will continue to appeal her three-day suspension without pay with the state personnel board.

A decision on Hunter's appeal is expected from the county on Monday.

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