Legally Speaking: Firing the Sugar Plum Fairy-A Christmas Tale

John G. Browning Dec. 20, 2011, 4:00am

Twenty-nine-year-old Laura Coppinger has been a fixture of the annual Christmas Traditions festival in St. Charles, Mo.

For the past six years, the part-time substitute teacher twirled and danced, calling out to the children and passersby in "this obnoxious, high-pitched voice that you could have heard three blocks away," she says.

Coppinger is a big draw during the month-long festival, in part because of the spirit she brings to a character best known for her appearance in the classic ballet "The Nutcracker," and in part because of her infectious enthusiasm for the whole Christmas celebration.

In the true Christmas spirit, she volunteers to fix other cast members' costumes and helps new actors rehearse their roles. Coppinger even added a big, glittery set of wings to her fairy costume at her own expense.

Money is not the big attraction for Coppinger (she would have made $13.08 an hour this year, enough to help pay for Christmas gifts for her family and friends). For this Sugar Plum Fairy, the joy was in "going back year after year and inspiring all those kids to still have magic on Christmas," she says.

But then came 2011, and the word that festival hiring would—unlike past years—be handled by the city of St. Charles itself. As such, festival organizers required the same mandatory drug test that all city employees undergo.

Like the 61 other people seeking part-time roles in the Christmas Traditions festival, Laura Coppinger showed up at a local testing facility to give a urine sample. After she filled the specimen cup provided, Coppinger, out of habit, flushed the toilet.

That was a no-no for the folks at the testing facility (apparently, test subjects sometimes try to dilute their samples with running water), and Coppinger was told to go back to the waiting area and start drinking liquids until she could provide another sample.

At that point, Coppinger experienced a moment not unlike another iconic Christmas character, Ralphie from the movie "A Christmas Story." She let loose with an expletive when she realized the delay would cause her to miss a job interview.

"Out of frustration with myself and frustration with the fact that I was going to have to sit another hour, I cursed," says Coppinger.

While Coppinger did not direct her profanity at any person in particular, that made no difference to the woman working behind the counter. Coppinger was told to go home; when she inquired why, she was simply directed to talk to St. Charles' Human Resources department.

According to St. Charles' special events coordinator Karen Godfrey, Coppinger had violated the Christmas Traditions code of conduct, in particular a section entitled "Christmas Characters Don't Know Naughty Words."

Coppinger took exception to that, pointing out (correctly) that the section in question refers to her behavior while in costume as the Sugar Plum Fairy—not while Coppinger the private citizen is standing in the hallway of a drug testing facility.

Coppinger pleaded with Godfrey, asking if she could apologize. But Godfrey would not relent; perhaps, like the Grinch, her heart was two sizes too small.

A spokesperson for the city of St. Charles, Carol Felzien, was similarly stonefaced about the situation. She relayed a statement from the city's legal department, saying "It is the policy of the city that personnel matters are not commented upon, including the recruitment process for prospective employees."

But our Christmas tale does not end there. The Sugar Plum Fairy lawyered up.

Unfortunately, emails and letters from her lawyer have produced no response from the decision makers at the city of St. Charles. In the court of public opinion, however, it is not even a close call. Local merchants sensitive to Coppinger's importance to the annual festival are not happy.

Jim Brown, owner of Riverside Sweets, says the Sugar Plum Fairy is a big draw and that Coppinger is getting a raw deal.

"I think it's unfortunate that the city would use an out-of-context situation, a trivial matter in my opinion, to judge somebody's job capabilities. Come on, who amongst us hasn't said a bad word in our lives?" he says.

Theresa Rubio, proprietor of Grandma's Cookies, echoes these sentiments. "If anything, they should pay her double for what she's done for Christmas Traditions. This whole thing is stupid," she says.

A Facebook page—"Save the Sugar Plum Fairy"—has also been created, with more than 2,000 "likes" so far.

Despite the public outcry and Coppinger's evident remorse, the city of St. Charles remains unmoved. The case has also ignited a media firestorm, going beyond local media to spread to CNN, Fox News, and USA Today.

Mayor Sally Faith even issued an official statement. In part, she stated that "it would be inappropriate for me or any other city officials to discuss" what she characterized as a "personnel matter;" of course, like most politicians, she then proceeded to discuss the very thing she said she wouldn't.

Mayor Faith stated that the human resources director had "extended 62 prospective offers to individuals who applied and auditioned for the part-time roles of a Christmas Traditions character this year. Out of the 62 people—two of whom were children applying for the role of Tiny Tim—a total of 61 people were able to follow the process to the letter and, as a result, their job offers were approved and finalized."

Wait a second—the city drug tested kids? They tested Tiny Tim? What would Bob Cratchit say?

Mayor Faith went on to acknowledge that Coppinger "has done a fantastic job." But, she says, given Coppinger's "excessively inappropriate behavior and language at the drug testing facility," the city "made the right decision in not rehiring this former cast member."

In fact, Mayor Faith took care to remind those who might listen, as a prospective employee Coppinger "was not fired, as she was never actually hired to participate in the 2011 festival."

If that strikes you as political doublespeak from Mayor Faith while the villagers are marching on city hall with their torches and pitchforks, you are not alone. If Laura Coppinger was never actually hired, then how could she be subject to a draconian "code of character conduct" that only applies to employees (and, common sense would dictate, only employees while they are "in character")?

I get the reason for the code of conduct—after all, no one wants to hear the f-bomb while visions of Sugar Plum Fairies are dancing in their heads. Even if some rude little tyke kicks a department store Santa right in his jingle bells, I do not want Santa to shatter every kids' illusion and start cursing a blue streak.

But it happened under perfectly understandable circumstances, at a drug testing facility before Laura Coppinger was ever officially hired, not during the Christmas festival itself while in character as the Sugar Plum Fairy.

This year, Mayor Faith and your inflexible HR director there at the city of St. Charles, you've made my naughty list. Nothing goes in your Christmas stocking except coal, diminished revenues for your downtown merchants seeking a holiday boost, the tears of unhappy children, and—oh yeah, maybe a lawsuit, too.

For everyone who is not the mayor and HR director of a certain Missouri city, I wish you a Merry Christmas.

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