Hobby Lobby sued, EEOC says KS worker with service dog fired

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The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is suing Hobby Lobby Stores in the Kansas District after officials say a worker was fired because she needed a service dog for work .

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A part-time Hobby Lobby employee in Kansas needed her fully trained service dog to do her job, which ultimately got her fired, according to federal officials.

Now, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has filed a lawsuit against Kansas’ National District craft retailer. The EEOC Alleges Hobby Lobby Breached the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The worker, identified as SC, “suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression and anxiety,” according to the lawsuit filed June 30. These conditions are included in the ADA.

SC began working with Hobby Lobby in Olathe in August 2020. She has worked as a cashier and in the seasonal, home decor and floral departments.

Just over a month after she started, officials said she told her manager she was going to get a medical service dog to help with symptoms related to her conditions.

She submitted a formal letter from her mental health provider and then met with human resources to discuss the request, according to the lawsuit. SC received a rejection 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 security risks and the global nature of the business, (SC) cannot use a service animal when checking out or unloading cargo and storage,” the denial letter states, according to the EEOC.

A human resources specialist told SC that she could not bring her service dog to work due to “safety precautions”, the lawsuit states. “He told SC it was a safety hazard because someone might be allergic to the dog, someone might trip over the dog, or the dog might break something.”

This is against Kansas store policy for customers with service dogs. Buyers can bring service dogs and other dogs “despite alleged safety risks,” according to the EEOC.

Hobby Lobby did not allow a trial with SC and the dog, officials said, and in late October SC took a week off to complete service dog training.

“Abandonment of position”

When the part-time clerk returned to work on Oct. 27, 2020, she brought her dog and “renewed her request for reasonable accommodation,” according to the lawsuit. The director sent her home.

“The store manager told SC that if she couldn’t work without her service dog, it would be considered job abandonment,” officials said. Because SC couldn’t work without her dog, she didn’t come back.

She was fired three days later “for abandonment of work,” the lawsuit says.

“Millions of Americans are high-performing and productive workers despite mental health issues that can be debilitating,” said Andrea G. Baran, regional attorney for the EEOC’s St. Louis District Office, in a statement. “The ADA guarantees equal employment opportunity for these people, including those who are assisted by service animals.”

The EEOC says it tried to settle with Hobby Lobby before filing a federal lawsuit, but they couldn’t reach an agreement.

Now, the federal agency is seeking back wages for SC, compensatory and punitive damages, and measures to prevent future discriminatory actions. The EEOC is also asking that the worker be rehired.

“Service animals help people with many types of disabilities – from vision and mobility impairments to seizure disorders and mental health issues – to live and work independently,” said David Davis, acting director of the EEOC’s St Louis District Office, in a statement. “Employers should not reject service animals, or other reasonable accommodations, based on stereotypes or assumptions about the safety or effectiveness of the accommodation.”

Olathe is about 20 miles southwest of Kansas City.

This story was originally published July 1, 2022 2:16 p.m.

Kaitlyn Alanis is a McClatchy National Realtime Reporter based in Kansas. She is an alumnus of agricultural communication and journalism at Kansas State University.

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