Former Hooters Waitress Claims She Was Ousted After Brain Surgery

Sandra Lupo says Hooter's discriminated against her for having brain surgery. At 27, Sandra Lupo received some scary news: She needed brain surgery to remove a noncancerous cranial mass. She had a buzz cut, the surgery was completed, and she returned to work, with a scar. But what followed, says the former Hooters waitress, was even more horrifying: Her St. Peters, Mo., employer required her to wear a wig. (Lupo is pictured on the left, in a healed state.)

According to a lawsuit that she filed in February, Hooters caused her "extreme stress" and the wig prevented the scar from healing. Claiming disability discrimination, Lupo also says that her hours at work were reduced until she was forced to quit to find new work. She is seeking damages of at least $25,000, in addition to lost wages.

Lupo, an employee at Hooters in Missouri since 2005, says that she took medical leave for the surgery, and her manager, Brent Holmberg, initially told her that she could use "jewelry" to cover up her scar. But then, she claims, she was informed by regional manager Joe Orzent that "she could not return to work unless she wore a wig." Hooters has not responded to media requests for comment and has filed motions for the case to be dismissed.

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Upon returning to work on July 21, Lupo at first tried a wig, which she says she had to purchase on her own. But she decided that the wig was both uncomfortable and interrupted the healing process, according to her lawyer, Larry Bagsby. So she ditched it. She says that she was then asked to leave work and her hours "were reduced to the point [she] could not earn an income," forcing her to quit.

According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, she is currently working as a registered nurse in the St. Louis area. She says she began working at Hooters in 2005 to help pay for her education in nursing. Lupo, for her part, first filed a complaint with the Missouri Commission on Human Rights. In her complaint, she said that her customers had no problem with how she looked without the wig. "My customers were not offended, and were in fact curious about the obvious scar from my surgery," she said.

The Americans With Disabilities Act bans employers from discriminating against qualified workers who either have a disability or a perceived disability. In her lawsuit, Lupo also claims Hooters violated the Missouri Merchandising Practices Act, saying that the company reduced her hours as a strategy to get her to quit.

Hooters, and other so-called "breastaurants," have been booming in America. And they are no strangers to legal and public relations scrutiny over their workplace culture. In speaking to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Marcia McCormick, an associate professor of law at St. Louis University, said so-called "breastaurants" tend to argue "We're not just selling wings or food ... we're selling sexuality. We're selling the flirting," she said.

But even if Hooters tries to use that argument, legal experts such as McCormick doubt that Lupo will walk away empty-handed. "Every case I know about has generally settled," she said.
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