By Sofia Resnick
When a very pregnant Felicia Allen applied for medical leave from her job at Hobby Lobby three years ago, one might think that the company best known for denying its employees insurance coverage of certain contraceptives—on the false grounds that they cause abortions—would show equal concern for helping one of its employees when she learned she was pregnant.
Instead, Allen says the self-professed evangelical Christian arts-and-crafts chain fired her and then tried to prevent her from accessing unemployment benefits.
“They didn’t even want me to come back after having my baby, to provide for it,” she says.
Her allegations—as well as those brought by other former Hobby Lobby employees—call into question the company’s public claims when it comes to protecting life and operating its business with Christian values. Additionally, they highlight a practice by which Hobby Lobby prevents its employees from seeking justice through the courts.
In a phone interview with RH Reality Check, Allen, now 32, said she was stunned when her supervisor at the Hobby Lobby store in Flowood, Mississippi, told her she would be terminated for taking unpaid time off to have her baby.
“I asked her would I lose my job due to me being four months and only having five months before I have my child. She told me ‘no,’” Allen said. “I felt like everything was OK. I had talked to my boss, and she let me know that everything would be OK. I would still have my job.”Allen had been hired as a part-time cashier in late July 2010. Shortly after starting the job, she learned she was four months’ pregnant with her third child. Because she had not been working for very long, Allen did not qualify for leave under the federal Family Medical Leave Act, which is what she said the Oklahoma City-based chain offers for maternity leave. Nervous, Allen went to her supervisor.
But five months later, when the time came to take her leave of absence, Allen says her supervisor told her she would be terminated but could reapply later on. She says she tried to come back to work three weeks after her child was born, to no avail.
“I was like, I can’t get fired,” Allen recalls. “She can’t terminate me because I have to go have my child. I started asking everybody on the job, ‘Can they do this?’ And even the assistant manager who had just got hired [said,] ‘No, that’s not right.’”
Hobby Lobby did not respond to multiple requests to tell its side of the story or to answer questions about its maternity leave and other company policies.
When Allen applied for unemployment benefits, she says Hobby Lobby’s corporate office gave the unemployment agency a false version of events, claiming she could have taken off personal leave but chose not to. In the end, Allen says she won her claim for unemployment benefits, but she felt she had been wrongly discriminated based on the fact that she was pregnant. In February 2012 she sued Hobby Lobby, but her lawsuit was swiftly dropped because, like most—if not all—Hobby Lobby employees, Allen had signed away her rights to sue the company.
Though the multibillion-dollar, nearly 600-store chain took its legal claim against the federal government all the way to the Supreme Court when it didn’t want to honor the health insurance requirements of the Affordable Care Act, the company forbids its employees from seeking justice in the court of law.
Allen had signed a binding arbitration agreement upon taking the job, though she says she doesn’t remember doing so. The agreement, which all Hobby Lobby employees are required to sign, forces employees to resolve legal disputes outside of court through a process known as arbitration.
Arbitration has many benefits: It is usually vastly cheaper than litigation, and often allows parties to stave off potential reputational damage by settling disputes in private.