When the Hobby Lobby store in Flowood, Mississippi, hired Felicia Allen in August 2010, she was excited about joining the company. But, within a short span of months, she suddenly found herself out of a job.
“When I first got hired I was feeling very sick, which I thought was because I have migraines,” Allen told VICE News. “I went to the doctor’s office and found out I was pregnant.”
Allen said she asked the store manager if the pregnancy would affect her job and was told that she would simply have to take medical leave. Yet when that time came the following January, the store manager informed Allen that her employment would have to be terminated.
Allen was shocked. She said that her fellow employees and friends outside the company told her about anti-discrimination laws against firing a woman for being pregnant. But the manager told her that she could reapply and get her job back soon after giving birth.
“I tried to come back to work two weeks after I had my child,” said Allen. “I got documentation showing that my doctor said I could go back to work. Who goes back to work that fast? I wanted to keep my job.”
When Allen reapplied, the manager snubbed her. With a newborn and two other children, Allen couldn’t afford to be out of a job. She consulted a lawyer and sued the company in early 2012 for violating federal discrimination law.
'You caused me to lose my job because I had a child, and then you go and say you prefer that someone have a child.'
Allen’s lawsuit was thrown out, however. Nick Norris, one of her lawyers, told VICE News that Hobby Lobby makes its employees sign a binding arbitration agreement upon hire. Allen’s signature on this dense arbitration document took away her right to sue for just about anything.
Louis Watson, Norris’s partner, told VICE News that he didn’t know Allen had signed an arbitration agreement until it emerged in discovery after she had filed the suit. When the case was dismissed, he and Norris told Allen that they didn’t recommend bothering with arbitration.
“I’m in my tenth year of practice right now, and we just don’t pursue arbitration anymore,” Norris said. According to Norris, arbitration is designed to almost always work in favor of the company. He said that arbitrators are typically corporate defense lawyers who want to keep their clients happy. Those who rule in favor of employees are essentially blacklisted.
Allen told VICE News that she never realized arbitration was an option; she absorbed only that the suit was dismissed.
The Arbitration Fairness Act, introduced in the Senate last year, would end the forfeiture of a person’s right to sue. The bill asserts that the original 1925 Federal Arbitration Act was intended to settle disputes between two companies of similar size and power, and was never intended to apply to employment disputes or “supersede all other federal laws protecting consumers, workers, and small businesses.”
Under the proposed act, a company couldn’t pressure a worker to sign away their right to sue the day they are hired. It wouldn’t ban arbitration between companies and employees, but would give the employee the choice to agree to arbitration rather than be forced to commit to it because they want a job.
A January New York Times article detailed how unfair arbitration clauses were a key reason it took so long for American Apparel founder Dov Charney to be ousted from the company. Despite allegations of sexual harassment dating back at least ten years, heavily restrictive clauses prevented employees from being able to sue, talk to the media, or say anything negative about the company or the founder. American Apparel even made its models agree to arbitration, which is almost unheard of.
Hobby Lobby, a nationwide craft store chain with more than 5,000 employees, is best known for its recent Supreme Court victory. After a long battle, the court ruled in June that Hobby Lobby and other “closely held” corporations can cite religious beliefs that would exempt them from having to cover certain birth control drugs, like Plan B, through employee insurance plans.
But according to Allen’s story, which broke in an RH Reality Check investigative report on Tuesday, the company famous for its devotion to pro-life family values doesn’t seem to care much about pregnant employees. Allen said that when she tried to sue, the corporate office stepped in and lied, telling lawyers that she had refused maternity leave and wasn’t fired at all.
“I felt like she wanted to get rid of me,” Allen said of the Flowood manager. In November, Allen’s doctor advised that she take a week off during the busiest season of the year because the stress of work was causing her blood pressure to spike. Despite her impending birth, she said, the Hobby Lobby manager resented this. When she eventually filed for medical leave, she was informed that she was ineligible and lost her job.
Hobby Lobby’s lawyers and public relations firm did not respond to requests for comment.
The irony of Allen’s story is that throughout its highly publicized Supreme Court case, Hobby Lobby portrayed itself as an unusually friendly employer. According to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represented Hobby Lobby in the Supreme Court case, “the Greens seek to honor God by ‘operating their company in a manner consistent with Biblical principles.’ ”
“The Greens strive to apply the Christian teachings on respect and fairness to their employees, increasing the pay of Hobby Lobby’s full- and part-time hourly workers for four years in a row,” reads the Becket Fund description online. “Full-time hourly workers now start at 90 percent above the federal minimum wage.”
Allen works at Xerox now, but said that when Hobby Lobby was all over the news this spring she was surprised at the way the company was repeatedly described as having “Christian values.”
“I don’t think it’s a good company to work for — from the experience I had in Jackson, anyway,” Allen said.
“I think they’re contradicting themselves and being hypocritical. You caused me to lose my job because I had a child, and then you go and say you prefer that someone have a child,” she added. “It was totally opposite when it came to me.”
Follow Mary Emily O’Hara on Twitter: @MaryEmilyOHara
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