A longtime employee of Jo-Ann Fabric and Craft in Redlands looked forward to returning to work after her chemotherapy ended, but she was dismissed while still undergoing treatment.
Deborah Browning, 60, of Highland is a two-time cancer survivor who worked at Jo-Ann's more than 20 years - until this month.
A spokeswoman said this week that the company is taking another look at Browning's case.
Browning started working with the company full time on Feb. 11, 1990, in Washington state at a subsidiary of the company, Beth's Fabrics and Crafts.
In 2000, she moved to Highland and worked for Jo-Ann's in San Bernardino until it closed and all merchandise and staff was shifted to the Lugonia Avenue store in Redlands.
In late 2011, said Browning, her hours were cut to 29 per week, causing her to lose her health benefits.
Several weeks later, on Dec. 16, Browning was diagnosed with breast cancer. She continued to work until she could no longer do so, she said.
"All my co-workers were very supportive of me," she said.
Making a little over $10 an hour, Browning said she wanted to stay on board for as long as she could, to serve her longtime customers.
Browning said she was put on medical leave on March 16.
Per company policy, the leave would continue up to 26 weeks, but the company would consider an extension of leave if appropriate medical documentation was provided, according to the store's human resources department.
Several months of chemotherapy, radiation treatments and surgery followed, paid for by Medi-Cal.
And when things seemed to be in the clear, doctors found a trace of cancer in her left lung, she said, and part of the lung was removed.
While beginning a new round of treatment, Browning received a letter from the company on Aug. 17, asking for medical documents to verify that she needed more time.
The language in the letter read paperwork needed to be submitted in a "timely fashion" by Sept. 5.
Paperwork was submitted on time, she said, and an extension until Nov. 2 was granted.
However, the company letter approving the extension - postmarked Oct. 4 - arrived by certified mail on Wednesday, 16 days after Browning received the letter of termination, she said.
It also said if she wanted a second extension, she must "provide medical documentation for evaluation supporting an extension."
Browning had already provided documentation.
On Oct. 17, her physician, Dr. Shanmuga Subbiah at Arrowhead Regional Medical Center in Colton, sent a letter to the company saying that Browning would be unable to work from Oct. 15, 2012, through Feb. 28, 2013.
In a letter to Browning dated Nov. 12, the company's disability department said that while it had received the information from Browning's doctors requesting the extension, "a leave of extension will not be granted."
Her employment ended effective Nov.
"We appreciate your service with our company and welcome you to reapply with Jo-Ann once you have been released to return to work."
Browning was shocked.
"Even if I reapply, I won't get the pay I was getting and will have to start all over," she said.
There is no guarantee she will be rehired.
The corporation declined to comment on the specifics of why she was let go.
"Our human resources team is in the process of reviewing this case," Beth L. Shivak, manager of corporate communications for the company, said in an email. "The personal matters of our Team Members are treated with a high degree of confidentiality, so, at this time, we cannot discuss the details of this situation beyond that."
Kevin Erwin, an attorney with Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith LLP in San Bernardino who focuses on labor and employment law, said that while an employee is entitled to a certain amount of medical leave, they need to provide their employer with a reasonable account of their disability if more time is requested.
It is up to the company to decide if it wants to accommodate the extra time off, he said.
If the employer can prove the position was going to be eliminated or prove the leave extension would create an undo hardship, the company has the legal right to terminate the employee, said Erwin, who represents neither Browning nor Jo-Ann's.
None of the correspondence from Jo-Ann's suggested either was the case.
Browning said she is now cancer-free but continues to receive treatments as preventive care.
She said she spends up to nine hours, two days a week receiving treatment, in addition to some hour-long treatments throughout the week.
And though the stress of knowing there's no job waiting for her when she completes her treatments could weigh on her, Browning says she has tried to remain positive.
Despite losing her job, she said she still would return to work for the company because of one thing - her longtime customers.
"I've known them for years, and they are some fantastic people," Browning said. "They ask about me every day when they go in, how I'm doing. And I miss it because I'm really a people person."
Her customer service skills were recognized by the company several times.
For a high volume of positive comments, employees receive a silver scissors pin for their name tags. Ten silver scissors may be turned in for a golden scissors pin.
Browning holds three gold pins and several silver ones.
And while the pins are a token of appreciation from the company, Browning said her relationships with her customers are what has kept her going those 22 years.
Many have approached her while she's out in the community, asking when she will return to the store, she said.
She does not have an answer for them.
She also does not have any plans to sue the company, she said.
"At one time there was a lawsuit (against Jo-Ann's) for breaks and stuff, and when I got the paperwork, I shredded it," Browning said. "I couldn't do it because I loved my job, and thought it would affect my job.
"Come to find out, one of my bosses did and she got $1,200. And another girl got $500. I should have done it, but in my heart, I couldn't."