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Company told one Muslim employee that ‘God would understand’ if he shaved beard, complaint alleges
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has sued United Parcel Service Inc., for discriminatory practices dating back to 2004 against job applicants and workers whose religious practices conflicted with the company’s uniform and appearance policies.
The lawsuit, filed on July 15, 2015, is the first nationwide lawsuit that EEOC has filed alleging religious discrimination at UPS.
“EEOC has litigated numerous religious discrimination cases against UPS on behalf of individual applicants and employees,” said EEOC Trial Attorney Elizabeth Fox-Solomon of the agency’s Buffalo Local Office in an interview with SHRM Online. “This case is unique in that EEOC’s goal is to comprehensively and systematically address the failure of UPS to accommodate the religious practices and beliefs of its applicants and employees on a nationwide basis.”
UPS prohibits its male supervisors and male employees who interact with customers from wearing beards or growing their hair below collar length. According to EEOC’s complaint, since at least 2004, UPS failed to hire or promote workers whose religious practices conflicted with this policy and failed to provide religious accommodations to its appear¬ance policy at facilities around the United States.
“UPS respects religious differences and is confident in the legality of its employment practices,” said Steve Gaut, UPS’s vice president of public relations. “UPS has for many years had protocols for employees to request religious accommodations including variations for appearance and grooming guidelines … or work schedule adjustment for prayers. The company will review this case, and defend its practices that demonstrate a proven track record for accommodation.”
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers from discriminating against people because of their religion, and it requires employers to reasonably accommodate an employee’s “sincerely held” religious beliefs—unless doing so would impose an undue hardship on the employer.
“This case involves not only the outright denial of religious accommodations, but also lengthy delays—sometimes several years—in processing requests for religious accommodations,” Fox-Solomon said. “It is EEOC’s position that a long, unreasonable delay by an employer in granting a religious accommodation is tantamount to a denial of an accommodation and is a violation of Title VII.”
The EEOC filed its suit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York. The agency is seeking reimbursement for plantiffs’ lost wages, as well as compensatory and punitive damages for discrimination victims and a modification of UPS policies that have led to religious discrimination.
“No person should be forced to choose between their religion and a paycheck, and EEOC will seek to put an end to that longstanding practice at UPS,” said Robert D. Rose, the regional attorney for EEOC’s New York District Office, in a press release.
James Wright, a diversity and inclusion strategist, said that decisions made by employers around religious accommodations “may be driven by a lack of knowledge and understanding of the law, unconscious or conscious bias, and stereotypes.”
“Given the rise in [different] religious groups [in the U.S.]… I predict an increase of similar lawsuits where potential violations of Title VII are experienced,” Wright said.
Dan Egol, chief of staff at Cook Ross Inc., a corporate consulting group that focuses on organizational culture, said that his office guidance advises that many American companies may not understand that they must accommodate their employees’ religious beliefs as long as accommodation does not impose an undue burden on the company.
“If American companies truly understood that courts will always defer to a litigant’s bona fide religious practice versus the ‘undue burden’ standard, we might see fewer religious accommodation lawsuits in the future,” the guidance states.
Egol added that, because it’s unlikely that a company can prove an undue burden by accommodating an employee’s religious practice, the guidance suggests that “it would be wise for you to accommodate their needs in a way that is agreeable to all sides.”
“Many of these ‘no facial hair’—and similar—rules are purely for optical reasons dealing with external relations with clients which have not been revised in years,” the guidance states. “So it’s important to revisit any employee handbook or human resource guide which could disparately impact or infringe on the religious beliefs of their diverse employees.”
The New York District Office of EEOC oversees New York, Northern New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine.
Atlanta-based UPS is the nation’s largest package delivery company. It has more than 300,000 employees nationwide, and operates in every state in the union.
Told ‘God Would Understand’
Fox-Solomon said the EEOC has identified “several harmed parties” in the complaint—although she didn’t specify a number—and she said she expects more complainants will come forward.
The complaint describes one Muslim man who wore a beard to observe his religion and who applied for a UPS driver helper position in Rochester, N.Y. “He was told ‘God would understand’ if he shaved his beard to get a job and that he could apply for a lower-paying job if he wanted to keep his beard,” the release said.
Muslims and Christians at other facilities were forced to shave their beards, although shaving violated their religious beliefs, the complaint alleges. It also states that these same men were forced to wait months or years for UPS to act on their requests for religious accommodations.
In another instance, the complaint says, a Rastafarian part-time load supervisor in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., who kept his hair long to observe his religion, asked for an accommodation from UPS’s appearance policy. “His manager told him he did not ‘want any employees looking like women on (his) management team,’ ” the release said.
Rastafarians in other parts of the country were denied positions or waited years for their requests for accommoda¬tion to be granted so they could win the positions they sought, the complaint said.
UPS and its affiliates have been involved in several high-profile religious discrimination suits in past years, although the complaint is a new case with new harmed parties who have not been involved in past lawsuits against UPS, Fox-Solomon said.
In June 2009, UPS offered monetary damages and religious accommodations to a 19-year employee at UPS’s Bartlett, Tenn., facility to resolve a lawsuit filed by the EEOC.
In a February 2010 case similar to the current lawsuit, UPS Freight agreed to pay $46,000 and provide equitable relief to resolve a religious discrimination lawsuit brought by the EEOC, which charged that UPS refused to accommodate the Rastafarian religious beliefs of Nieland Bynoe and instead fired him from its Harrisburg, Pa., location because of his religion. A manager told Bynoe he would need to cut his hair and shave his beard to comply with the company’s grooming policy, but Bynoe argued that his religious beliefs prohibited him from doing either.
In September 2012, the EEOC charged in a suit that UPS violated federal law when it allowed supervisors and co-workers to discriminate against and harass an employee for being Arab and Muslim.
In November 2013, UPS agreed to pay $70,000 to settle a religious discrimination suit filed by a former employee and Jehovah’s Witness, who said the company would not change his schedule to allow him to attend an annual religious service.
Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.
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