- A grocery store in Kentucky allegedly engaged in religious discrimination against a job applicant by insisting he cut his dreadlocks to work at the store, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission charged in a lawsuit filed Dec. 27 (EEOC v. Houchens Food Group, Inc. d/b/a Hometown IGA, No. 22-00235 (E.D. Ky. Dec. 27, 2022)).
- The applicant, a Spiritualist Rastafarian, wears his hair long and in dreadlocks because of his religious belief that his hair connects him to God, according to the complaint. During his interview for an assistant manager position at Hometown IGA’s Williamsburg store, he was allegedly told he needed to cut his hair to be hired for the position. He explained that he wore the dreadlocks for religious reasons and that he would not cut them, the EEOC said. Hometown ended the interview, and he wasn’t hired, the lawsuit alleged.
- The EEOC sued the company for violating Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by refusing to accommodate the applicant’s religious beliefs and for denying him employment because of his religion. “Employers must consider reasonable accommodations, as necessary, which allow employees and applicants to hold jobs without sacrificing their religious beliefs,” EEOC Regional Attorney Ken Bird said in a media release. Hometown IGA did not respond to a request for comment prior to press time.
The lawsuit highlights two potentially misunderstood issues: First, Title VII protects all aspects of religious observance and belief, including dress or grooming practices, even if some people engage in the practice for non-religious reasons, an EEOC guidance explains. Second, employers can’t automatically refuse to accommodate a religious grooming or dress practice just because it may violate an appearance policy, the guidance says.
Instead, if the dress code or appearance policy conflicts with the employee’s known religious beliefs or practices, the employer must make an exception to allow the practice, unless doing so would pose an undue hardship to the business. Undue hardship means “more than a de minimis” cost or burden, according to an EEOC compliance manual. This is a lower standard than undue hardship under the Americans with Disabilities Act, which is defined as “an action requiring significant difficulty or expense,” the manual says.
In an ongoing religious accommodation case involving Kroger, the issue of undue hardship must be decided by a jury, a federal judge ruled last July. The EEOC sued Kroger on behalf of a group of workers who refused to wear an apron bearing a four-color heart, HR Dive reported. The workers said the logo represented support for LGBTQ individuals, but Kroger denied it was an LGBTQ pride rainbow and fired them. The company argued that excusing the workers from complying with its dress code would pose an undue hardship in a number of ways, including disrupting the workplace. The judge said a jury should decide.
A complaint the Council on American-Islamic Relations filed with the EEOC in 2021 against Chipotle Mexican Grill shows why it’s important to train managers on accommodating religious-based dress or grooming practices and on Title VII’s prohibition against religious-based harassment. According to the complaint, an assistant manager at a Kansas restaurant repeatedly demanded that a Muslim employee remove her hijab, her religious head cover, so he could “see her hair” and then tried to yank it off.
Failure to comply with these requirements can be costly. In 2021, JBS Swift agreed to pay $5.5 million to settle allegations by the EEOC that it denied Muslim employees at a Colorado beef processing plant the ability to pray, allowed them to be harassed while they tried to pray during breaks and shut off water fountains to stop them from washing for prayers or getting a drink of water after fasting all day, HR Dive reported.
Employers in one of the 19 states and multiple cities across the U.S. with CROWN Act laws are also prohibited from race-based hair discrimination. The law, which stands for Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair Act, outlaws employers from denying educational or employment opportunities because of workers’ or applicants’ natural hair texture or protective hairstyle, including braids, locs, twists or bantu knots, according to the CROWN Coalition. The U.S. House of Representatives passed a federal version in March 2022, but in December, Senate Republicans blocked it from becoming law.
Correction: A previous version of this article included a typo that mischaracterized who makes an exception to dress code or appearance policies. The article has been updated to clarify that it is the employer who does so.