Publix Super Markets’ strict grooming standards have the clean-cut grocery chain in hot water with federal anti-discrimination authorities.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is suing the Lakeland-based grocer, alleging religious discrimination for telling a new hire to cut his dreadlocks to work there.
Guy Usher, a Rastafarian, was hired to work at a Publix store in Nashville, Tenn. However, the lawsuit said, he was asked to cut his hair before he started work. Adherents to Rastafarianism often don’t cut their hair. He had to quit before he started because of the grooming requirements, the lawsuit said.
The EEOC is seeking injunctive relief, as well as back pay, compensatory and punitive damages, in Tennessee federal court.
“Usher told the manager he could not cut his hair because of his religion and asked if he could wear his hair in a hat,” a release from the EEOC said. “Management refused to allow the hat or any other reasonable accommodation, and he was forced to quit before his first day of work.”
Publix has been criticized in the past for its strict grooming code that requires men to wear clean-cut hairstyles and eschew beards. In 2015, an online petition to allow beards at Publix gathered more than 16,000 supporters, but the facial-hair doctrine remained.
Publix said it does not comment on pending litigation, but did offer a response.
“At Publix, we value and appreciate the diversity of all of our associates,” the statement from Publix spokeswoman Maria Brous said. “We work to provide environments where known religious beliefs and practices of our associates and applicants are reasonably accommodated. As I’m sure you can understand, it would be inappropriate for us to comment specifically on this case, as it is pending litigation. However, please know that we are dedicated to the employment security of our associates and that we regularly provide accommodations to associates due to their religious beliefs, as required by law.”
It’s not the first time a company has faced legal issues over dreadlocks.
Federal courts have also ruled that banning dreadlocks is not racial discrimination during the hiring process. The Safeway grocery chain was sued and settled in 2011 a suit over dreadlocks.
The EEOC also sued a Disney World contractor, HospitalityStaff, in 2016 on behalf of a Rastafarian cook allegedly fired for having dreadlocks. HospitalityStaff settled the case for $30,000. As part of the settlement, the contractor also agreed to conduct religious-discrimination training, change policies to protect employees from religious discrimination and make yearly reports to the EEOC.
In the case against Publix, the EEOC said in the lawsuit involves a potential employee’s “sincerely held religious belief.”
“Management officials have a responsibility to consider all reasonable requests to accommodate employees’ religious beliefs and practices,” said a statement from Katharine W. Kores, district director of EEOC’s Memphis District Office. Publix is a privately traded company owned by current and former Publix employees and directors.
The case has similarities to a 2015 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that said teen retailer Abercrombie and Fitch was wrong for not hiring an American Muslim teen who wore a hijab. Abercrombie said the hijab did not fit Abercrombie’s “look policy.”
Rastafarianism, an Abrahamic religion, requires adherents to not cut hair based on a line in the Old Testament’s Book of Numbers, which says with certain religious volunteers “not a razor shall come upon his head.”
John is a Jacksonville native who grew up on the First Coast. He graduated from Bishop Kenny High School in 1975 and went to college at Florida State University where he completed a 4-year program in 3 years. John graduated from the Florida State University College of Business in 1978 and went straight into Florida State University College of Law. While in law school, John earned a position on the prestigious Law Review Board serving as its Business Editor. As a law student, John studied in the Oxford program. He also interned with the Florida Legislature working in the Florida House of Representatives Criminal Justice Committee. John was admitted to the Florida Bar in 1981.
John began his legal career as a law school intern in the State Attorney's Office in Jacksonville in 1981. After his internship, legendary State Attorney Ed Austin hired John as a full-time Assistant State Attorney for the Fourth Judicial Circuit (Clay, Duval, and Nassau Counties). As a prosecutor, John tried jury and non-jury trial on charges ranging from DUI to Murder.
In 1983, John moved from the State Attorney's Office to begin his career in private practice. He has practiced law for 30 years on the First Coast. For the last 20 years, John and his family have made Clay County their home.
John limits his practice to personal injury and disability cases. While there are many fine attorneys in Clay County, John is one of only a few Clay County attorneys who limit their practice to personal injury and disability cases. John takes pride in helping clients resolve injury claims in ways that avoid the stress, uncertainty, and the expense of unnecessary litigation.
John is the past President of the Clay County Bar Association and has served on the Board of the Clay County Bar Association from 2009-2013. He is an active member of the Florida Bar, and the Federal Bar of the Middle and Southern Districts of Florida. He is also a member of the American Association of Justice, the Florida Association of Justice, the National Organization of Social Security Claimants' Representatives, and the National Organization of Veterans' Advocates.
Service to the Community
John is involved in the Clay County Community serving as a member and Director of the Rotary Club of Orange Park, of the Clay County Bar Association, and the Putnam County Bar Association.
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