Grocer pays $40K to settle claims it asked applicant to cut his dreads

Dive Brief:

  • Kentucky-based grocer Houchens Food Group will pay $40,000 to settle a U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission lawsuit claiming it did not hire an applicant who requested a religious accommodation to the company’s personal appearance policy, the agency announced Thursday.
  • According to the complaint, filed in 2022 as EEOC v. Houchens Food Group, Inc. d/b/a Hometown IGA, the plaintiff is a Spiritualist Rastafarian whose religious observance requires that he wear dreadlocks. Houchens allegedly failed to consider an accommodation for the plaintiff and denied him employment.
  • EEOC said Houchens agreed to enter a consent decree that includes monetary relief for the plaintiff, as well as a three-year injunction against further discrimination and three years of reporting to EEOC to ensure compliance.

Dive Insight:

EEOC filed suit against Houchens prior to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Groff v. DeJoy, which struck down that court’s “more than a de minimis cost” standard for determining whether a workplace accommodation for a sincerely held religious belief poses undue hardship to an employer under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

In Groff, the high court instead held that an employer must show that a proposed accommodation poses a substantial burden in the overall context of the employer’s business. Legal analysts have said that Groff presents a higher bar for employers to clear in denying an accommodation.

Religious dress and grooming practices are one of many protected areas under Title VII’s prohibition of religious discrimination, according to 2014 EEOC guidance. The document specifically lists Rastafarian dreadlocks as an example of such practices.

“An employer’s personal appearance policy does not change its obligation to try to accommodate the religious beliefs of its employees and applicants,” Kenneth L. Bird, a regional attorney for EEOC, said in the agency’s press release. “This case is an important reminder that Title VII protects all sincerely held religious beliefs and applicants and employees alike.”