By Kameron Court
Editor’s note: This is the opening story in a series on gender issues in the workplace produced by Texas Tech journalism students in the capstone course JOUR 4350: Multiplatform News Delivery.
At least two recent first-time mothers who previously worked at a Lubbock tanning franchise say they have been mistreated by the company in the context of their pregnancy.
One of these former employees of Palm Beach Tan said she suffered an unreasonable loss of nearly $500 in commission after having a baby. The other said she was fired while in the middle of giving birth.
The company, which has three locations in Lubbock, has declined to comment on personnel issues.
Pregnant women and parents often face so-called “family responsibilities discrimination” (FRD), according to the WorkLife Law Center. The center’s website states that “there is no federal law that expressly prohibits FRD, but some state and local laws do.”
The first case is that of Makayla Ervin, who had previously worked at the company’s corporate franchise in Fort Worth, Texas. She said she used to earn 10 percent in commission from selling lotion plus membership packages every two weeks in Ft. Worth, but only once a month in Lubbock.
“Since I worked at another Palm Beach [Tan] before, I just assumed you got what you earned,” Ervin said.
It was not until she and her husband found out they were having a baby and decided to move back to Ft. Worth to be closer to family that she was told by a co-worker she would not be able to get her commission if she quit.
“It all started to click,” Ervin said. “Like why they put it in one check at the end of the month, so they could withhold as much commission from you as possible if you quit.”
Once Ervin started looking for proof of this supposed rule, she realized she had been tricked into signing a handbook she was never shown.
“They had one paper that you signed, and it just says that you read the handbook,” Ervin said. “They make it look like the handbook is the paper they give you, but there’s a whole other handbook that says all this other crazy stuff in it.”
The actual handbook was in a folder on a computer at the salon where Ervin worked. Although she sensed her manager’s discomfort with her retrieval of the handbook, she said she was glad to find what she was looking for.
“In the handbook, it just said they don’t have to pay you commission if you leave or whatever,” Ervin said. “But there was one little part of it that said if you put in your two weeks [notice] and you make it known that you’re going to be leaving, that they give you your commission.”
Once Ervin realized she found her loophole, she said she quickly called Kourtney Keith, the Palm Beach Tan district manager, to make sure she was going to get the commission she had earned.
Ervin said Keith kept telling her she was not going to get the money, even though Ervin pointed out she had followed the guidelines stated in the handbook.
“We got paid well, but the commission is really what we worked for,” Ervin said. “We worked hard. We sold stuff for the company to help them make money, and we got a reward for it. That was our commission.”
Even though Ervin had earned about $500 in commission, which she said she needed for her move and to start her family, she did not get any of her commission after doing exactly what the handbook instructed.
Brittany Saenz, a former manager for a Palm Beach Tan in Lubbock, Texas, said after she saw how Ervin was treated, she made sure to read the handbook thoroughly when she found out she was pregnant.
Saenz said she discovered she was pregnant in August, at a time when the franchise was making several changes, causing her superiors to be in town. This allowed her to tell them in person to make sure she was letting them know far in advance.
When Saenz asked Jessica Vowell, her regional manager, if she knew about her pregnancy already, she said Vowell said yes. Since Vowell did not say that only she knew but instead said the entire management had heard, Saenz felt that she was including everyone in the announcement.
“There is only about five of them that communicate who are higher than the store managers,” Saenz said.
In October, one of the owners, Blake Costello, and Vowell came back to Lubbock for a manager meeting, and both talked to Saenz about her pregnancy.
“They knew since then,” Saenz said. “It was not a big secret at all.”
On Feb. 2, Saenz said she had requested time off for her 36-week doctor’s appointment, but woke up feeling different than usual.
“I knew something was going on,” Saenz said.
Saenz said she was able to get her appointment time moved up. Her doctor warned she could have her baby earlier than planned, but the exact time was still unknown.
Because the doctor was worried, he scheduled Saenz to be tested for preeclampsia, a pregnancy complication involving high blood pressure. If Saenz were diagnosed with it, she would have been put on bed rest. Saenz said as soon as she got home, she let her bosses know she was having complications with her pregnancy and needed to do more tests the next day.
“The night went on,” Saenz said. “I was here at the house. I was in a lot of pain. This was my first kid, so obviously, I had no idea what it was going to be like, but it started getting worse and worse as the night went on.”
Saenz and her husband ended up going to the hospital before the night was over. The hospital staff kept her there because her contractions were getting stronger.
“I had kept my co-workers up to date with what was going on,” she said. “I was letting them know, you know, ‘Hey, this is what’s going on. I’m in the hospital.’ And they were very understanding. They knew exactly what could happen.”
After making sure she covered her shift for the following day, Saenz emailed all of her supervisors to let them know she was going into labor a month early but had taken care of the store as much as she could from her hospital room before sunrise.
“Please let me know what paperwork I need to sign because this is happening,” Saenz said she told them in an email. “It’s happening now and not later.”
After sending the email, Saenz said she focused on being in labor and giving birth. Because her baby was born early, Saenz had complications during the birth and was worried about her daughter.
It was not until 5 p.m. when Saenz had a second to check her phone, which greeted her with a notification from her scheduling app, HotSchedules, that she had been terminated while giving birth.
“Once that happened, my nurses actually came in and were asking me if something was wrong and what’s going on,” Saenz said. “My blood pressure skyrocketed just by getting that notification because I was supposed to be on maternity leave, not terminated. That’s not the proper term for anything.”
Saenz said she called Keith to ask why she had been terminated when all she had done is go into labor early. Keith told her there was no option for maternity leave on the scheduling app they used and, before hanging up, reassured her that she had not been fired.
“After talking to Kourtney Keith, it made me feel a lot better,” Saenz said. “That wasn’t my focus. My focus was on my daughter since she was born premature. I was keeping a close eye on her.”
Saenz later received an email from Costello congratulating her on the birth of her daughter. In the same email, Costello advised Saenz to consult the employee handbook , which he attached to the email.
The handbook stated the company did protect its employees under the Federal Medical Leave Act, which guarantees up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to employees of companies with more than 50 workers. However, the handbook stated an employee needed to inform the company a week in advance that she was planning to take maternity leave.
“I did let them know about complications, when my due date was, everything,” Saenz said.
Saenz said she responded back to Costello with a list of several questions referencing back to the information in the handbook and asking what exactly she needed to do, if anything, to take care of her maternity leave. She said she asked for a clarification on why HotSchedules said she was terminated.
“I referred every single question I could that the handbook stated in that email and sent that email twice,” she said. “Sent that email the same day he responded to me, and sent it the next day also, and I never got a response from them at all.”
Saenz said there was no point in time from when she let her employer know she was pregnant to when she asked for the specifics she needed to do in order to have maternity leave that someone contacted her back to let her know she either had paperwork to complete or was not employed anymore.
“I was on maternity leave,” Saenz said.
The federal government’s online information portal about FMLA states that “it is the employer’s responsibility to provide the necessary FMLA paperwork to its employees if they express the need for leave.”
A few weeks after her baby was born, Saenz went to go tan at the store she managed and catch up with her employees. Saenz said her name was still in the computer as an employee, and although there were rumors someone might replace her, she said there still had not been someone who said she was fired.
“Well, what am I supposed to do?” Saenz said. “I have no confirmation. They were already trying to replace me without even me being told that I was terminated or anything like that.”
Shortly after Saenz received a letter in the mail informing her that her health insurance had been discontinued due to employment termination, likely during the time she was in labor.
The Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 states that “women affected by pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions shall be treated the same for all employment-related purposes, including receipt of benefits under fringe benefit programs, as other persons not so affected but similar in their ability or inability to work…”
Saenz said she called the insurance company to make sure her maternity leave had not been mistaken for termination. The answer was that there was no mistake.
“As of that letter, that is when I knew I was terminated for having my baby,” Saenz said.
Saenz sent one more email to her supervisors, asking when exactly she had been fired. She still has not received any response to any of her emails.
A call to the Lubbock franchise of Palm Tan asking for information on the two cases resulted in a promise that someone would call back to comment.
After calls went unreturned, a reporter and Sarah Self-Walbrick, the graduate executive director of The Hub@TTU, personally went to ask for comment on the two cases at one of the Lubbock locations. The visit resulted in being asked to leave and encouraged to seek comment only from Palm Beach Tan’s corporate media contact.
Brad Carmony, the Palm Beach Tan spokesman, at first said the situation was unclear to him. He also said the location being discussed was not considered corporate, adding he could reach out to get a quote from the franchisee.
Later, Carmony responded with an email statement declining any further comment.
“The store referenced is a franchised location of Palm Beach Tan who is individually owned and operated,” Carmony said in his email. “It is our company’s policy to not comment on personal issues. This store follows all state and federal employment law guidelines.”
A current employee of the Lubbock franchise, who requested anonymity for fear of losing employment, confirmed all the information provided by Ervin and Saenz.