THORNTON, Colo. - A Colorado breast cancer survivor said Chick-fil-A is cutting her insurance and demoting her just after she took leave for a double mastectomy.
To Daphne Richards, a newly-divorced mother with two children to support, Chick-fil-A's family-friendly values and healthcare coverage seemed like a perfect fit.
"I lived in Indiana my entire life, and I relocated for this job," said Richards. "I could move up the ladder, and the owner told me 'Maybe someday, you could own your own store."
She started late last year as shift manager at the Larkridge Chick-fil-A in Thornton. But in May, Richards got the diagnosis.
"I had double breast cancer in both breasts," she said. She would need a bilateral mastectomy and weeks to recover.
"For this company, when tragedy struck, they stepped up," said Frederick Schaefer, the attorney for Chick-fil-A at Larkridge. "Even though she didn't qualify for continuing benefits during her work hiatus under the Family Medical Leave Act, the store continued to pay for her health insurance coverage during her medical leave."
Just after she was cleared by her doctor to come back to work last week, though, she said the store owner delivered a shocking blow.
"She said,'I no longer have a full-time management position for you, and you will no longer be receiving healthcare benefits after September,'" said Richards. "She said something about reconstructing or reconfiguring the business."
Richards' documents show that not only was she being demoted, she was going from a 40-plus hour work week to a 10-to-15-hour week and her hourly wage was dropping from $14 to $10 per hour.
She believes it is a clear case of discrimination.
"What else could it be?" said Richards. "I'm receiving my bills now from my surgery. They're astronomical. I'm wondering, 'Is this raising her premiums? Is she worried about the future surgeries?'"
Schaefer said that the decision to "offer" reduced hours was because the store owner, Barrie Goettsche, "was concerned about the effect of a full-time workload after traumatic surgery." He said the store is now willing to offer her 30 to 35 hours.
However, he said that Richards was demoted because of her performance prior to leave, not because of health reasons.
"Barrie said Daphne had been written up a number of times, at least two times prior to the medical leave," said Schaefer.
Richards said that she has never been written up and has a letter from Goettsche praising her performance in April.
"Daphne is a very sensitive, loving and compassionate person," Richards read from the letter. "I know she will continue to be a valuable asset and resource to the restaurant as she gains more experience, responsibility and time under her belt."
"Employers never admit to discrimination," said Rachel Arnow-Richman, director of the Workplace Law Program at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law, speaking generally about similar complaints. "An employer will always come forward with a justification for the termination based on a lawful reason."
Arnow-Richman said that employers in Colorado cannot legally fire someone because of a disability, which includes breast cancer, but proving the motivation for firing or demoting someone is another matter.
"It's also impossible to know what's in the mind of a decision-maker when they make decisions like this, so the difficulty is in establishing proof," said Arnow-Richman. "One looks at what the employers proffered reasons are and whether they can be substantiated. Timing of the decision and knowledge of a condition could create an inference that the employer was retaliating."
Even though the restaurant has not technically fired Richards, in employment law, a case like this might be considered "constructive discharge," where an employer makes things so difficult a employee is compelled to resign against her will.
Richards has filed a discrimination charge with the Colorado Civil Rights Commission and plans to keep fighting.
"I know that this is morally wrong," said Richards. "I believe in my heart that it can't be legal what she's doing to me."
Richards said she still needs reconstructive surgery and is devastated that she may not be able to afford it.
Even after all she has been through, though, she said she can't believe the Chick-fil-A corporation she has faith in could do something so unchristian.
"What is happening to me isn't by Chick fil-A standards," said Richards. "It just seems so unfair."
A Chick-fil-A corporate spokeswoman stated that Richards is an employee of an independent franchise owner and not a corporate employee.