A part-time Hobby Lobby clerk in Kansas needed her fully trained service dog to do her work, and that ultimately got her fired, according to federal officials.
Now the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has filed a lawsuit against the national craft retailer in the District of Kansas. The EEOC alleges Hobby Lobby violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The female worker, identified as S.C., “suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression and anxiety,” according to the lawsuit filed June 30. Those conditions are included under the ADA.
S.C. began working with Hobby Lobby in Olathe in August 2020. She worked as a cashier and in the seasonal, home accents and floral departments.
A little over a month after she started, officials say she told her manager she was getting a medical service dog to help with symptoms related to her conditions.
She submitted an official letter from her mental health provider, then met with human resources to discuss the request, according to the lawsuit. S.C. received a denial letter from HR in mid-October.
Hobby Lobby did not immediately respond to a request for comment from McClatchy News on July 1.
‘A safety hazard’
“Due to identified safety hazards and the overall nature of the business, (S.C.) may not utilize a service animal while cashiering or unloading freight and stocking,” the denial letter states, according to the EEOC.
An HR specialist told S.C. she couldn’t bring her service dog to work because of “safety precautions,” the lawsuit sates. “He told S.C. it was a safety hazard because someone could be allergic to the dog, someone might trip over the dog, or the dog might break something.”
This is contrary to the Kansas store’s policy for customers with service dogs. Shoppers can bring service dogs and other dogs “despite the alleged safety risks,” according to the EEOC.
Hobby Lobby did not allow a trial run with S.C. and the dog, officials said, and in late October, S.C. took a week off work to complete her service dog training.
When the part-time clerk returned to work Oct. 27, 2020, she brought her dog and “renewed her request for reasonable accommodation,” according to the lawsuit. The manager sent her home.
“The Store Manager told S.C. that if she could not work without her service dog, it would be considered job abandonment,” officials said. Because S.C. could not work without her dog, she did not return.
She was fired three days later “for job abandonment,” the lawsuit states.
“Millions of Americans are successful, productive workers despite having mental health conditions that can be debilitating,” Andrea G. Baran, regional attorney for the EEOC’s St. Louis District Office, said in a statement. “The ADA ensures equal employment opportunity for these individuals, including those who are assisted by service animals.”
The EEOC says it tried to settle with Hobby Lobby prior to filing a federal lawsuit, but they were unable to reach an agreement.
Now, the federal agency seeks back pay for S.C., compensatory and punitive damages, and steps to prevent future discriminatory actions. The EEOC also requests the worker be rehired.
“Service animals assist people with many types of disabilities – from vision and mobility impairments to seizure disorders and mental health conditions – to live and work independently,” David Davis, acting director of the EEOC’s St Louis District Office, said in a statement. “Employers must not reject service animals, or any other reasonable accommodation, based on stereotypes or assumptions regarding the safety or effectiveness of the accommodation.”
Olathe is about 20 miles southwest of Kansas City.