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UPS’s no-beard policy hit with religious discrimination suit

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GLENDALE, CA - JULY 22: A United Parcel Service (UPS) driver in 2010 in Glendale, California. Photograph by Kevork Djansezian — Getty Images

A Muslim who applied for a driver helper position with UPS in Rochester, N.Y., was told he would have to shave the beard he wore as part of his religious practice in order to qualify for the position. “God would understand,” if he trimmed it, the applicant was told, and if he chose not to, he could apply for a lower paying job.

That allegation and others like it are included in a lawsuit filed against UPS (UPS) by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on Wednesday in federal court in Brooklyn, N.Y. that accuses the shipping giant of “violat[ing] federal law by discriminating against applicants and employees around the country whose religious practices conflicted with its uniform and appearance policy.”

UPS said in a statement that it “respects religious differences and is confident in the legality of its employment practices.” The company has provided employees with protocols for requesting religious accommodations, including variations for appearance and grooming guidelines or work schedule adjustment for prayers. UPS “will review this case, and defend its practices that demonstrate a proven track record for accommodation,” the statement says.

In other instances cited in the EEOC’s complaint, Muslims and Christians were also instructed to shave their beards as they waited months or years for UPS to act on their requests for religious accommodation. A UPS manager told a Rastafarian part-time load supervisor who asked for religious accommodation to wear his hair long that he did not “want any employees looking like women on [his] management team.” A Native American applicant for a receiving position at UPS in Stockton, Calif., who wore his hair long for religious reasons and offered to wear a hair net was told, “No hair cut, no job.”

UPS requires male employees who come in contact with customers or those who hold supervisory positions to keep their hair above collar length and their facial hair no longer than the lip, the lawsuit says. Since at least 2004, the company has failed to hire or promote workers whose religious practices conflict with UPS’s appearance policy, the EEOC said in its complaint. It’s also failed to provide religious accommodations to its clean-cut look policy throughout the U.S. The shipping company’s alleged practices violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bars employers from discriminating against individuals because of their religion and requires companies to reasonably accommodate an employee’s sincerely held religious beliefs unless doing so would cause the employer undue harm.

“UPS has persistently enforced its appearance policy even when that policy conflicts with the religious beliefs of its applicants and employees,” Robert D. Rose, the regional attorney for EEOC’s New York District Office, said in a statement. “No person should be forced to choose between their religion and a paycheck.”

The EEOC’s release about the lawsuit says the agency tried unsuccessfully to broker a settlement with the company prior to filing suit. The commission’s lawsuit aims to have UPS modify its practices relating to religious accommodation and seeks lost wages and compensatory and punitive damages for the affected individuals.

The United States Supreme Court tackled the issue of religious accommodation in the workplace in early June when it ruled 8-1 against Abercrombie & Fitch in a case brought by a Muslim job applicant who was denied employment because she wore a headscarf. In that matter, the nation’s top court considered whether an employer needs to have explicit knowledge of a person’s religion or merely a suspicion of her need for religious accommodation in order to be liable for discrimination.

In his opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote that “an employer may not make an applicant’s religious practice, confirmed or otherwise, a factor in employment decisions.” Whether or not an employer commits intentional discrimination comes down to motive, regardless of how much an employer knows. “Motive and knowledge are separate concepts,” he wrote.

An employer that has actual knowledge of a job applicant’s need for an accommodation does not violate Title VII by refusing to hire the candidate if he rejects the candidate for an entirely different reason, Scalia’s opinion said. “Conversely,” Scalia wrote, “an employer who acts with the motive of avoiding accommodation may violate Title VII even if he has no more than an unsubstantiated suspicion that accommodation would be needed.”