By Bruce Guthrie
Updated August 10, 1998 12:00 PM

Early last year, Claudine Woolf was leading an enviable life “outside San Francisco. At 27, she enjoyed marriage, motherhood and her sales work for cosmetics giant Mary Kay Inc. out of the Martinez, Calif., home she shared with husband Michael and their 2-year-old son Tyler. In two years at Mary Kay, Woolf had risen from door-to-door sales rep earning an average of $250 a week to sales director making about $50,000 a year. Then, in March, Woolf learned she was pregnant. “We were thrilled,” she says. “Then we found out it was a package deal.”

The other part of the package was the breast cancer that was diagnosed two weeks later, spinning her happily ordered world into chaos. In the following months, Woolf went through a radical mastectomy, chemotherapy and a life-threatening pregnancy. Then, she claims, came another blow: Mary Kay—whose motto is “God First, Family Second, Career Third”—let her go after falling sales. “It’s the cruelest thing I’ve ever experienced,” says Michael, 33, a beverage company branch manager. Adds Claudine: “It was more than a job. It was my life.” Fighting back, Woolf filed a wrongful-dismissal suit against the company—whose worldwide sales reached $2 billion last year—in April. “It’s just another example,” says her attorney, Angela Alioto, “of a seriously wealthy corporation saying, ‘Go slave for us, but whatever you do, don’t get sick.’ ”

Mary Kay calls that a smear. “This is a company founded by a woman [Mary Kay Ash, now 80, in 1963] to benefit women,” says Mary Kay executive Russell Mack, asserting that the organization, a generous sponsor of cancer research, is “very sensitive” to sales force members with the disease. More to the point, he claims that “once Claudine told the company of her illness, we made an exception and waived her sales requirements” and that to this day she remains a sales director. Besides, he adds, “how can she be fired if she’s never been an employee?” Like thousands of Mary Kay marketers, Mack says, Woolf is an independent contractor running her own business on commission.

Such arrangements now pervade corporate America. “If you can call people independent contractors, then you can avoid benefits,” says James Finberg, a prominent San Francisco employment-discrimination lawyer, characterizing what he considers a typical company attitude. If Woolf is to win her case, he says, she will have to convince the court that, labels aside, she was an employee. Alioto says that since Woolf and other reps have followed a dress code, attended sales meetings and pledged to sell only for Mary Kay, “they’re not independent contractors, they’re employees.”

Of course, Woolf’s legal struggle pales beside the war she has waged since being diagnosed with cancer on March 24, 1997. Fearing pregnancy’s hormonal changes could fuel the cancer, several doctors advised Woolf to abort. “Only two [Roseann Gorey and Stephen Wells] said I didn’t have to,” she says. Battling for two lives through grueling treatments, Woolf ran her 50-member sales team “even though I couldn’t lift my head,” she says. But when Wells ordered complete bed. rest last fall, sales began falling short of the team’s $8,000 monthly quota. Her spirits soared on Oct. 25, when her son Jesse, now a healthy 9-month-old, was born. But a company letter dated Dec. 15 states that Woolf would be “asked to relinquish your directorship and requalify” if her team didn’t meet quota. Mary Kay says they later waived those requirements.

For Woolf, who says she is now cancer-free, suing Mary Kay stirred conflicting emotions. “When you believed in a company the way I believed, it’s very difficult,” she says. “[But] I know I’ve done the right thing. I want them to never be able to do this to another woman again.”

Bruce Guthrie

Gabrielle Saveri in San Francisco and Chris Coats in Dallas