Florida's leading grocer Publix is facing a federal lawsuit after the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission says it didn't allow a Nashville man to work in one of its Tennessee stores because he wouldn't cut the dreadlocks he wears as part of his religion.
The lawsuit, filed last week in U.S. District Court in Nashville, Tenn., says Publix broke the law when it hired Guy Usher, 28, but then forced him to quit a day before he was set to start because store managers said he needed to cut his hair above his shoulders.
Usher wears his hair in long dreadlocks as part of Rastafari, an Africa-centered religion that developed in 1930s Jamaica.
"Management officials have a responsibility to consider all reasonable requests to accommodate employees' religious beliefs and practices," Katharine W. Kores, a district director for the EEOC, said in a prepared statement.
The EEOC said it tried to reach a pre-litigation settlement before filing the lawsuit, but couldn't. Now it is asking for an injunction to prohibit Publix from "discriminating against employees based on their religion in the future, as well as back pay, compensatory, and punitive damages."
Usher applied to one of Tennessee's 41 Publix locations in January for part-time work. The lawsuit says he was going to be hired as a cashier or produce clerk. Usher was offered the job and told his manager he would not cut his hair, but could wear it back in a hat.
When the manager said he would still have to cut it, Usher called back citing the federal equal-employment opportunity laws. After passing a drug screening, Usher reiterated to managers he was not comfortable cutting his hair because of his religion — that's when Publix withdrew its offer, according to the lawsuit. Rastafarians usually do not cut their hair in adherence to a passage in the Old Testament.
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"At Publix, we value and appreciate the diversity of all of our associates," the chain said in a statement. "We work to provide environments where known religious beliefs and practices of our associates and applicants are reasonably accommodated."
However, the store said it would be "inappropriate" to comment on Usher's case because it is pending litigation.
"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," the statement said.
This isn't the first time the Lakeland-based grocery chain has been under heat for its grooming mandates. The store also doesn't allow men to have beards, prompting a popular internet petition last year.
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Publix employs more than 188,000 people across seven states. It was founded in Winter Haven in 1930 and now has more than 700 locations in Florida.
Contact Sara DiNatale at email@example.com. Follow @sara_dinatale.