Friday, September 29, 2017
Dreadlocks Entangle Publix With EEOC
Guy Usher, a twenty-eight-year-old African-American male and a resident of Nashville, Tennessee practices Rastafarianism as his sincerely held religious belief. Those religious practices as a Rastafarian include prayer, non- consumption of alcohol or pork, and maintaining his hair in dreadlocks. One of the "distinguishing marks of the movement" is the formation of hair into dreadlocks (as detailed in the Wikipedia article on Rastafari. Reggae musician Bob Marley did much to raise international awareness of the Rastafari movement).
On January 8, 2017, while shopping at his local Publix Store #1211, Usher was approached by a recruiter and encouraged to apply for a job at the Store, which he did. On the same day, Publix’s Assistant Store Manager interviewed Usher in the Store considering him for two open positions, one as a Part-time Cashier and one as a Part-time Produce Clerk. She also had Usher speak to the Store’s Customer Service Manager. At the end of those interviews, she told Usher he would have to cut his hair to work at Publix based on Publix Appearance Standards which prevent men from wearing their hair longer than the collar of their shirt.
Usher informed the manager that he could not cut his hair because it was against his religion and asked if he could wear his hair inside a hat to which the manager said she would have to check and get back to him. On January 10, the manager called Usher and offered him employment as either a Cashier or Produce Clerk, but she told Usher that Publix could not accommodate his religious beliefs by allowing an exception to its Appearance Standards. On this call, Usher refused Publix’s offer of employment.
That same day, believing that he had been discriminated against, Usher called back and accepted the part-time Produce Clerk position, and scheduled a drug screen for January 11. On this phone call, Usher again referenced his religion and equal-employment-opportunity laws and asked if Publix will still require him to cut his hair; to which the manager replied “Yes.”
Several days after January 11, Usher called the Store and told the manager that he felt uncomfortable cutting his hair for religious reasons. She asked Usher if he wanted Publix to withdraw its offer of employment, and Usher replied in the affirmative. After processing his Title VII Religious Discrimination Charge, the EEOC filed suit in Tennessee Federal Court on September 26, 2017 alleging that that “the effect of the practices complained of by Usher has been to deprive him of equal employment opportunities and otherwise adversely affect his status as an employee because of his religion.”
Common Sense Counsel: A reasonable religious accommodation is any adjustment to the work environment that will allow the employee to practice his/her religion and still work. An employer might accommodate an employee's religious beliefs or practices by allowing flexible scheduling, voluntary substitutions or swaps, wearing religious clothing or even hair styles. All an employee needs is a strongly held religious belief to make such a request. If you can find a reference to the applicant or employee’s claimed religion on Wikipedia, tread lightly and seek to be accommodating. And for Heaven’s sake have a legally defensible religious accommodation policy in your employee handbook.
Tommy Eden is a partner working out of the Constangy, Brooks, Smith & Prophete, LLP offices in Opelika, AL and West Point, GA and a member of the ABA Section of Labor and Employment Law and serves on the Board of Directors for the East Alabama SHRM Chapter. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 334-246-2901. Blog at www.alabamaatwork.com with link to Complaint