‘No Pants, No Job’ Rule Skirts Law

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By Patrick Dorrian

Nov. 3 — A South Carolina automotive parts manufacturer violated federal law when it refused to hire a Pentecostal job seeker because her faith requires her to wear a skirt rather than pants, the EEOC alleged in a federal lawsuit ( EEOC v. Akebono Brake Corp. , D.S.C., No. 3:16-cv-03545, complaint filed 11/2/16 ).

Clintoria Burnett “has never worn pants, even as a child,” according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. When a temporary staffing agency tried to place her with Akebono Brake Corp., the company’s human resources department told the staffing agency not to hire Burnett for a job in Akebono’s West Columbia, S.C., facility because of her desire to wear a skirt, the agency said in a complaint filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina Nov. 2.

That’s religious discrimination, the commission claimed, because Akebono refused Burnett employment without even attempting to discuss and accommodate the conflict between her religion and its work rule requiring employees to wear pants on its West Columbia manufacturing floor.

The company also interfered with Burnett’s employment opportunities with the temporary agency, the complaint charged. The lawsuit was filed under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

The EEOC for years has warned employers of the need to accommodate workers’ wearing of religious garb when consistent with a sincerely held belief and where it would not impose an undue hardship on the employer’s business.

In a fact sheet on “Religious Garb and Grooming in the Workplace” posted to its website, the commission cites as an example an Apostolic Pentecostal woman who needs to wear a skirt rather than pants for religious reasons.

Private and public employers “must generally” grant such workers an exception from an employee uniform policy requiring the wearing of pants, the fact sheet says, unless the employer can show the type of skirt the worker seeks to wear “would pose an actual safety hazard.”

Burnett is “an observant member of the Apostolic Faith Church of God and True Holiness” denomination of the Pentecostal Christian faith, according to the EEOC. She sought an exception from Akebono’s pants rule to wear an ankle-length skirt, it said.

Prior Lawsuits and Settlements

The EEOC and the Department of Justice have previously sued and obtained money damages and other relief from employers they believed failed to accommodate a Pentecostal woman’s need to wear a skirt. For example, the commission in April 2014 settled for $40,000, mandatory manager training and other relief a case against a Kentucky Fried Chicken franchisee in North Carolina.

Similarly, the U.S. Supreme Court in June 2015 revived the EEOC’s Title VII claim for a Muslim job applicant denied work by Abercrombie & Fitch because she wears a religious head scarf or hijab.

A representative of Akebono, which is headquartered in Michigan, didn’t respond Nov. 3 to Bloomberg BNA’s request for comment.

“Under federal law, employers have an obligation to attempt a fair balance between an employee’s right to practice his or her religion and the operation of their business,” Lynette A. Barnes said in the EEOC’s Nov. 3 statement announcing the lawsuit. Barnes is the regional attorney for the commission’s Charlotte, N.C., district office.

EEOC attorney Rachael S. Steenbergh in Charlotte also represents the commission. No attorney has filed an appearance yet for Akebono.

To contact the reporter on this story: Patrick Dorrian in Washington at pdorrian@bna.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Peggy Aulino at maulino@bna.com; Terence Hyland at thyland@bna.com

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