Why it matters

Perhaps inspired by the agency's recent success before the U.S. Supreme Court in EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed suit against United Parcel Service alleging that the company engages in religious discrimination in the application of its grooming policy. The nation's largest package delivery company has a policy banning beards and hair that is cut below collar length for male workers that have contact with customers or hold supervisory positions. A Muslim who applied for a driver helper position in New York was told he would need to shave his beard to be hired and that "God would understand," according to the EEOC's complaint, while a Florida Rastafarian was refused an accommodation for his long hair by a manager who allegedly said he didn't want a supervisor that looked like a woman. The federal court complaint—which features dozens of other examples of alleged discrimination—seeks back pay and changes to the company policy for violations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act dating back to 2004. The Abercrombie & Fitch case, where the justices ruled in June that actual knowledge by an employer is not necessary for a Title VII religious discrimination claim, made headlines of its own a few days after the EEOC's new suit was filed when the parties revealed they reached a settlement agreement. A spokesperson for the Commission confirmed that Abercrombie paid Samantha Elauf $25,670.53 in damages and $18,983.03 in court costs.

Detailed discussion

One of the most closely watched cases of the last U.S. Supreme Court term, EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch, considered religious discrimination claims under Title VII. Samantha Elauf contended that instead of accommodating her religious beliefs, she was not hired by the national retailer because she wore a hijab to a job interview.

A federal district court granted summary judgment for Elauf, but the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the burden rests on an applicant or an employee to initially inform an employer of the religious nature of his or her conflicting practice and the need for accommodation. Elauf appealed to the Supreme Court, which granted certiorari given the split among the federal circuits.

In an 8-1 opinion authored by Justice Antonin Scalia, the Supreme Court reversed. "Abercrombie's primary argument is that an applicant cannot show disparate treatment without first showing that an employer has 'actual knowledge' of the applicant's need for an accommodation," the Court wrote. "We disagree. Instead, an applicant need only show that his need for an accommodation was a motivating factor in the employer's decision."

The justices emphasized the straightforward rule going forward: "An employer may not make an applicant's religious practice, confirmed or otherwise, a factor in employment decisions."

With the new precedent in hand, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed suit against United Parcel Service, alleging the company engaged in discrimination nationwide against applicants and employees whose religion conflicted with UPS's Uniform & Appearance Policy.

"This discrimination includes the unlawful failure to provide religious accommodations to UPS's appearance policy, failure to hire, failure to promote, and the segregation of those individuals whose religious beliefs conflict with the appearance policy into a particular subset of positions," according to the complaint, filed in New York federal court.

The Uniform & Appearance Policy applies to all of UPS's more than 300,000 employees in positions that require customer contact (including driver and driver helper) and all employees with supervisory responsibility. The policy—which does not apply to "back" of facility positions that do not involve customer contact—prohibits covered male employees from wearing facial hair below the lip or from growing their hair below collar length.

Among the many examples of alleged discrimination listed by the EEOC were those of Bilal Abdullah and Muhammad Farhan, both observant Muslims wearing beards. Abdullah applied for a position as a driver's helper in Rochester, N.Y. in November 2005, the EEOC alleged, and was told that he would have to shave his beard to be considered. When Abdullah explained the beard was part of his religious observance, a UPS hiring official allegedly replied that "God would understand" if he shaved the beard to get a job, the DOL said. The hiring official also suggested he apply for a package handler position which did not require customer contact, but Abdullah was not hired for either job.

The second charging party, Farhann worked as a package handler at a Dallas UPS location. On his first day of training in anticipation of a promotion to the driver position, Farhan was told by the employer that he would not be permitted to work as a driver because of his beard. Farhan requested a religious accommodation, the EEOC claimed, and was informed that such an exception to the policy was not possible, a position backed up by four other UPS supervisors.

Other alleged examples of discrimination included a Florida Rastafarian who requested an accommodation to permit his dreadlocks. His manager told him he "didn't want any employees looking like women on his management team," according to the complaint, and the human resources department questioned why he was a practicing Rastafarian since he was not Jamaican. A Brooklyn Muslim who sought an accommodation for his beard was initially told no accommodations to the policy existed; several years later, UPS informed him an accommodation was possible but he needed to provide certification from his imam that wearing a beard was part of his religious observance, the EEOC alleged.

The complaint requested a permanent injunction against discrimination on the basis of religion; an order to make Abdullah, Farhan, and the other applicants and employees allegedly discriminated against whole, including back pay and other affirmative relief, as well as punitive damages and compensation for past and future nonpecuniary losses including emotional pain, suffering, humiliation, and inconvenience.

In a statement, a spokesperson for UPS said the company will fight the lawsuit. "UPS respects religious differences and is confident in the legality of its employment practices," spokesperson Susan Rosenberg said. "The company will review this case, and defend its practices that demonstrate a proven track record for accommodation."

To read the complaint in EEOC v. UPS, click here.