SPARTA, NJ – It has been a difficult couple of weeks for a former Panera Bread employee.  Jenni Barkhorn, 28 was employed by Panera Bread for a little more than four years.  She was initially hired in June of 2015 to wipe down tables and chair, use the carpet sweeper and sometime clean the entry way windows. 

Barkhorn has Down syndrome. She had a job coach through the Division of Disability and Rehabilitative Services or DDRS and worked two 2-hour shifts a week.

The manager who hired her was eventually let go.  Panera Bread patrons told Barkhorn’s mother Rita Mueller that they had seen that manager mistreating Barkhorn in front of customers and that they had called Panera Bread to complain. 

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After about a year with the new manager, she asked to be able to do something else, in addition to keeping the store clean for patrons.  She learned how to make the coffee, according to her mother Rita Mueller.

“She never complained about her job,” Mueller said.  “I never had to tell her what day it was or what time it was.”  She would get herself ready and walk to work from her Lake Mohawk home, having been taught the route and how to cross the busy intersections safely.

Barkhorn began taking a fashion design college class at Sussex County Community College.  She is interested in the fine arts according to her mother and is working to get an associate’s degree.

Because of the classes schedule conflict, Barkhorn’s hours were cut down to one 2-hour shift. Mueller said she asked the job coach if they could not just find another day so she could continue to work the two days a week but Panera Bread was not able to accommodate that request.

There was a new manager and eventually a restructuring of the jobs at the Panera Bread.  In addition to her original three tasks and making coffee, Barkhorn was tasked with keeping coffee cup lids and sweetener packets stocked as well as bringing the dirty plates, bowls and utensils to the dishwasher.

Six months ago, Barkhorn began to be monitored.  Three times she was “written up” because “the manager wanted her to work faster,” according to Mueller.  Each time Barkhorn had to sign a paper.

She later told her mother she did not understand what she was signing. 

On August 13, in the middle of her shift, Barkhorn was called in to talk with the manager and she was fired.  The job coach told her mother he had an inkling of what was going to happen but did not know for sure.  Mueller said the job coach told her he was called to come to the meeting but not told why.

After Barkhorn was fired, Mueller was called to come to the store.  She found the job coach outside.  He explained what happened and said Barkhorn did not want him to wait with her, telling him she wanted to be alone.  Mueller said she did not understand why the job coach did not stand up for Barkhorn and at least ask the manager to wait until the end of the shift.

“The job coach knows I am not happy and now he is not allowed to talk to me,” Mueller said.

When mom went into Panera Bread, she found her daughter sitting alone at a table.  She briefly spoke with the manager but then knew she had to help Barkhorn.  When they went to leave, they got as far as the foyer when Barkhorn broke down and cried.

“She cried so hard people in the restaurant heard her and I started to cry too,” Mueller said.

The next day Mueller went back to the store to talk with the manager.  She said the manager told her all employees were handled the same way. She called Panera Bread human resources office and they said they felt he had ground to fire her, according to Mueller.  Somewhat ironic is that Barkhorn, “a leftie” was fired on national left handers day, Muller said.

They have hired a local attorney to look into possible ADA violations.

Mueller said Barkhorn has been through a lot in the past few years.  In 2014 her brother died.  She moved to Sparta to live with her mother shortly after that.

Barkhorn’s mother said people have been very supportive.  She said a woman with an infant with Down syndrome knew Barkhorn by name and was waiting for Mueller outside that day as well.  She asked Muller, “Are you Rita, Jenni’s mom,” and then proceeded to tell her that Barkhorn had come over to her and said, “your baby looks like my boyfriend.  He has down syndrome.” They had a conversation and the infant’s mother said she was very sweet and she was touched by Barkhorn coming over to talk with her.

Mueller said Barkhorn has received a couple of job offers but she will need a little more time before she is ready to go back to work. 

A manager at Panera Bread in Sparta said she was not allowed to talk about Barkhorn, referring TAPinto Sparta to their website for media contact. Panera Bread has not responded to a request for a comment as of publication.