Library employee: I was fired for questioning hiring practices

11/10/2014 4:35 PM |

A longtime Riverhead Free Library employee is accusing the library’s director of firing her and before that, taunting her for months by using a derogatory old-school rap reference — all because the worker raised legal concerns over racially motivated hiring directives. 

Diane Woodcheke was hired by the library in February 2003 as a payroll clerk and was given more responsibilities over time, eventually becoming the library’s business manager, according to Ms. Woodcheke. But those responsibilities started to get slowly stripped away after she raised concerns in April 2014 to the director, Joy Rankin — who was hired in August 2013 — about Ms. Rankin’s repeated instructions to library staffers to hire African-American and Hispanic applicants over white applicants, Ms. Woodcheke alleges in a lawsuit she filed Wednesday with the New York State Division of Human Rights.

A spokeswoman for the library said Friday that the board stands behind Ms. Rankin and denies all the charges.

“Ms. Woodcheke has initiated litigation against the library and therefore it would be imprudent to offer expansive comments to her concerns while this litigation is pending,” the spokeswoman said. “However, we believe that the allegations are false and without merit and we will vigorously dispute the allegations brought against the library and our library director Joy Rankin, who we fully support.”

According to the complaint, Ms. Rankin repeatedly “told employees that it was their duty to make the library ‘look more like Riverhead’ in reference to what [Ms. Rankin] claimed was the racial makeup of Riverhead town and the surrounding areas.”

“I was not in charge of hiring,” Ms. Woodcheke told the News-Review in an interview Friday. “But I worked directly with all the department heads and when they had vacancies they would be directed to basically hire blacks and Latinos. Then they realized this isn’t right. We don’t look at the color of someone’s skin. We look at experience.”

Ms. Woodcheke and her fellow employees agreed it would be best if she brought the issue to Ms. Rankin, given her long tenure with the library. When she did, according to the suit, Ms. Rankin “became enraged and verbally berated and abused [Ms. Woodcheke], instructing her never to bring up the issue again.”

“She showed me to her office door and that was the end of that conversation,” Ms. Woodcheke recalled, adding that the mocking started soon after, with Ms. Rankin repeatedly referring to Ms. Woodcheke as “Roxanne,” which Ms. Woodcheke later learned was a reference to rap group UTFO’s 1984 hit song, “Roxanne, Roxanne.”

Over the next few months, Ms. Woodcheke said Ms. Rankin kept referring to her as Roxanne, and it was not in playful manner.

The library employee said she didn’t know what “Roxanne” referred to at the time. She had thought it was from the 1978 Police song by the same name, which was about a red-light district prostitute.

“I thought, ‘What is she calling me a hooker?'” Ms. Woodcheke said.

She eventually asked Ms. Rankin what it meant, and the director told her it was in reference to the UFTO song. Ms. Woodcheke — who said she is not familiar with 1980s-era rap — looked up the lyrics online and was shocked by what she found, she said.

“She was calling me a bitch; that’s my take on it,” Ms. Woodcheke said. “Do you know the lyrics? Basically, you have three guys trying to get with this one girl and they’re not having any luck. They don’t actually say ‘bitch,’ but to me that’s what is being implied.”

During that same time, Ms. Woodcheke said she also found that responsibilities were being slowly taken away from her, until she was ultimately suspended from work in September over a claim that she hadn’t reported a missing Citibank password to Ms. Rankin.

The suit categorizes the reasons for her suspension — including that she was also accused of failing to inform Ms. Rankin that she was in possession of other passwords — as “false.”

While Ms. Woodcheke was home and not being paid, she decided to hire a lawyer, she said.

“She retained me and I wrote to them and asked them to immediately rectify this,” said her attorney, Vesselin Mitev of Miller Place. “I never heard back. And as I was sending a second letter, she got a letter saying she was fired.”

The lawsuit claims her civil rights were violated under state and federal law.

“She opposed discriminatory practice,” Mr. Mitev said, asserting it was Ms. Woodcheke’s right to do so.

Ms. Woodcheke is seeking lost wages and benefits, including retirement benefits, and damages for emotional distress and mental anguish, among other things.

“I’ve never, ever been in a situation like this, so when it’s happening to you, you’re thinking that there’s something going on, but you try to roll with it,” she said. “I don’t think I could have done anything differently; that’s the sad thing.”

Ms. Rankin and Riverhead Free Library are listed as respondents in the suit.

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