Muslims Filed 803 Employment Discrimination Claims in 2009

According to an article by Steven Greenhouse in The New York Times, that’s around 25% of the 3,386 religious discrimination claims filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in the year ending September 30, 2009–an awful lot considering that Muslims make up less than 2% of the population in the United States. It’s also 20% more complaints than were filed by Muslims in 2008 and 60% more than in 2005.

The complaints allege harassment and other forms of discrimination that range from name-calling to the disruption of prayer breaks. The EEOC has filed some pretty high profile lawsuits in response to some of the complaints. In August, for example, the EEOC brought a suit against JBS Swift on behalf of 160 Somali immigrants, claiming that “supervisors and workers had cursed them for being Muslim; thrown blood, meat and bones at them; and interrupted their prayer breaks.” Other companies against which the EEOC has filed include Abercrombie & Fitch and a Four Points by Sheraton Hotel.

Greenhouse ends his piece with a story about Imane Boudlal, who is from Casablanca, Morocco. My own sense is that Ms. Boudlal is being unreasonable, but I am curious what others think–and let me also say here that anyone who tries in discussing this post to use Boudlal’s story to undercut the overall point of this post or of Greenhouse’s article will be banned from this thread. Here are the last three paragraph’s of the article:

Imane Boudlal, a 26-year-old from Casablanca, Morocco, had worked for two years as a hostess at the Storytellers Cafe at Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif., when she decided she would begin wearing her hijab at work during Ramadan last month. Ms. Boudlal said her supervisors told her that if she insisted on wearing the scarf, she could work either in back or at a telephone job. She refused and has not worked while the dispute continues.

Disney officials said her head scarf clashed with the restaurant’s early-1900s theme, and they proposed a period hat with some scarf that would fall over her ears. Ms. Boudlal rejected that as un-Muslim. “They wanted to hide the fact that I looked Muslim,” she said.

Michael Griffin, a Disney spokesman, said the company’s “cast members” agree to comply with its appearance guidelines. “When cast members request exceptions to our policies for religious reasons, we strive to make accommodations,” he said, adding that Disney has accommodated more than 200 such requests since 2007.

Cross-posted on It’s All Connected.

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19 Responses to Muslims Filed 803 Employment Discrimination Claims in 2009

  1. 1
    vesta44 says:

    Personally, I think Ms Boudlal is being unreasonable. If she’s worked there for 2 years and hasn’t worn her hijab at work, and has dressed in the period costumes that Disney requires, why is it a problem all of a sudden that they won’t let her wear her hijab? She knew the terms of the job when she started working there and didn’t have a problem with those terms for 2 years, now she has a problem with them? Disney tried to accommodate her with a hat/scarf combination that would fit with her costume and serve the same purpose as her hijab, or give her a job where she didn’t have to be in costume and her hijab wouldn’t be a costume issue. Neither of those resolutions suited her, which seems to me rather unreasonable. Granted, I don’t know the religious ramifications of hijab versus hat/scarf, nor whether she wanted just her face/hands/feet showing (depends on the degree of coverage her hijab entails) or if she was going to wear her costume and cover her hair/ears/neck.
    The thing is, she’s saying Disney is trying to hide the fact that she looks Muslim. No, they aren’t. She did that when she went to work for them 2 years ago and agreed to wear the Disney costume without asking for accommodation for her hijab then.

  2. 2
    Robert says:

    Some portion of all such claims are going to be bogus, people being people. That’s not really very interesting, although at first glance Boudlal does seem to be acting unreasonable.

    The data point in the article is the sharp uptick in cases. That is disturbing and I suspect complex in its origins.

  3. 3
    JThompson says:

    The only part of the law that would apply to Ms Boudlal’s suit would be the “reasonable accommodation” part. Of course the same sentence also contains the words “unless doing so would cause an undue hardship on the employer”.

    Having to explain to visitors why someone is wearing a hijab among the flappers and zoot suits probably qualifies as an undue hardship. Especially since they did try to reasonably accommodate her by offering to switch her to a position that her hijab wouldn’t interfere with the period costumes/theme.

    Throwing blood, bones, and meat at a Muslim isn’t a workplace issue, it’s assault and should be treated as such. Arrests ought to be made over that one.

  4. 4
    Thene says:

    I’ve read things by Muslims that actively recommend hat+scarf as a way to do theatrical costumes while sticking to hijab. The idea is out there, but while it’s viable for some Muslims it may not be for all.

    But.

    How the flying fuck does ‘early 1900s theme’ mean ‘no hijab’? What did female Muslims wear in the early 1900s, and why can’t she wear that? It’s not like hijab appeared out of thin air the day after 9/11 (…that would be 9/12). Unless Disney’s vision of the early 1900s involves Muslims not existing, hijab should not even kind of be a problem.

    I guess that’s a pretty big ‘unless’. The fact that they didn’t suggest this makes me pretty sure Ms Boudlal is right; they have an issue with Muslim culture and don’t want to see it represented in their cafe.

    vesta44:

    Disney tried to [...] give her a job where she didn’t have to be in costume and her hijab wouldn’t be a costume issue.

    The last time I heard that one was when a disabled employee sued Abercrombie & Fitch for forcing her to work in a stockroom out of sight of customers. She won the case, though was judged to have suffered ‘unlawful harassment’ rather than ‘direct discrimination’. (I won’t pretend to know what the legal distinction between those two things is.)

  5. 5
    Mokele says:

    I think something that needs to be understood is that Disney is *not* a “reasonable” employer. I’ve not worked for them myself, but after living down in FL, I’ve known plenty of people who have, and there’s a strong consensus:

    Disney is CREEPY. Stepford Wives x 10000 creepy.

    You can’t have facial hair if you work there. You can’t have long hair if you’re a guy. You can never stand on one leg, even if you’ve been standing for 7 hours and need to take the weight off. You can’t cross your arms in front of you. You not only can’t swear, you can’t even use “darn” or “heck”. You can’t wear visible religious jewelery, or any jewelery more obvious than simple band-style rings. You have to smile all the time. Some kid punches you in the testicles for no reason? If you don’t keep smiling, stay happy, and keep any rebuke to yourself, you’re fired. And if you think that’s bad, go see Celebration, the town in Florida they created. That place gives me the creeps, and my day job is slicing up human corpses.

    I was shocked that Disney even tried to make any accommodation at all. Normally, they just boot anyone who might even hint at causing trouble, knowing full well that there will be 200 people waiting to take that job and nobody can afford lawyers as expensive as the Disney Corp.

  6. 6
    Robert says:

    If the place is creepy and abusive, why are there 200 people waiting to take a job there?

  7. Thene wrote:

    How the flying fuck does ‘early 1900s theme’ mean ‘no hijab’? What did female Muslims wear in the early 1900s, and why can’t she wear that? It’s not like hijab appeared out of thin air the day after 9/11 (…that would be 9/12). Unless Disney’s vision of the early 1900s involves Muslims not existing, hijab should not even kind of be a problem.

    My guess is that we’re talking about an early-1900s-US theme, not whatever the early 1900s version of an international gathering place would be; and while I realize that there were observant Muslim women in the US in the early 1900s, I doubt many of them were working in saloons/restaurants. More to the point, I would also guess that the kind of clothing those Muslim women wore at the time–probably a good deal more conservative, in the sense that it would cover more of the body than a simple hejab–would read to most of Disney’s patrons as oppressive of women and/or it would call attention to itself in ways that could arguably interfere with business.

    My point here is not to deny that Disney is asking a Muslim woman to dress in a way that obscures the fact that she is a Muslim–though it’s also important to remember that, according to the article, Boudlal did not normally wear the hijab to work; it was something she decided to do for Ramadan–but rather to suggest the complexity of your suggestion that she be allowed to wear a hijab appropriate to the early-1900s theme.

    Of course, this is also based on conjecture about the way Muslim women in the US dressed in the early 1900s. A quick Google search did not turn up any images. Still, I could be entirely wrong about all of this.

  8. 8
    Ampersand says:

    Thene, I’m not sure that comparison holds water. What’s at issue here isn’t the right to exist as a disabled person, or as a religious person, but the right to a public expression of religion at the workplace. There’s a difference between saying “you can’t work where the customers can see you” and “if you work where the customer can see you, then you need to wear the standard uniform.”

    I do think Disney is being unreasonable. The cafe in question is hardly deep in early-19th century character, and as you correctly point out, there were probably people wearing hijabs then, too.

    But I also think — unless there’s some other facts which cast a different light on this — that Disney should win the lawsuit. As I understand it, in a case like this, there’s no legal requirement to be reasonable; just a legal right to be equally and similarly unreasonable whether you’re dealing with Muslim, Jewish, or Christian employees. If Disney can show they’ve done that, then they should win.

  9. 9
    Ampersand says:

    If the place is creepy and abusive, why are there 200 people waiting to take a job there?

    Because unemployment is high, and more generally because people lack perfect information.

  10. 10
    Thene says:

    Amp – I agree; it wasn’t so much a strict comparison as ‘this reminds me of this other thing’. All they really have in common is a company finding an employee’s visible differentness to be unacceptable. While they have no legal requirement to be reasonable, I hope you can forgive me for being very annoyed by their ahistorical justifications for their unreasonableness. Period dress does not belong to white Christians.

    Richard:

    Of course, this is also based on conjecture about the way Muslim women in the US dressed in the early 1900s. A quick Google search did not turn up any images.

    Not necessarily surprising! (Kinda speculative here – not sure how severe aniconism was in the early 1900s, but it’s a possible reason for your hitting a wall there).

  11. 11
    Robert says:

    According to my reading, Richard, most Muslim immigrants to the US, particularly before World War I, assimilated. That doesn’t automatically mean western garb, but western women’s garb of the 1900-era was very conservative and modest. A Muslim woman who chose or was required to wear a full garment would have been very socially conspicuous – and while the intolerance of early American society is often overdramatized, I don’t think it unlikely that the Muslim community itself would feel in those circumstances that discretion was by far the better part of modesty. Just wear a hat, Miriam, like the white ladies do.

    @Amp, people have been lining up to work at Disney since I was a kid. Strong job market, weak job market, people line up to work at Disney. Imperfect information is a killer, but the stories of the constraints they put on their people have been out there for many many years, to say nothing of the vast social network value of all the former Disney employees, many of whom live in the same geographical area.

    I think the reality is that for some people the Disney requirements are very onerous, objectionable, and harsh, while for many others they end up producing a good work environment. I wouldn’t like it very much, but for some people, restrictions on tats and an obligation to smile, smile, smile are a small price to pay. The former group write indignant articles in alt weeklies about the Disney smile fascists, and the latter group are delighted to be in the Mickey costume.

  12. 12
    Brandon Berg says:

    Robert:

    The data point in the article is the sharp uptick in cases. That is disturbing and I suspect complex in its origins.

    Note that over half of the complaints are discharge-related. I suspect that the reason for the recent uptick in charges is that more people are being laid off due to the recession, and not that employers are becoming more bigoted.

    Not saying that muslims don’t get discriminated against—just that that’s probably not what’s changed in the last two years.

  13. 13
    Robert says:

    Other religious minorities have flat or declined numbers of complaints. It’s not the recession unless there’s some giant group of Muslim-only jobs out there; they can’t need that many caretakers for mosques. I know there hasn’t been a large surge in Muslim immigration on a low previous baseline, so it isn’t a change in the population being sampled.

  14. 14
    RonF says:

    I don’t think that Disney is being unreasonable. It’s instructive that Disney refers to it’s employees – at least those that are customer-facing – as “cast members”. You are a performer. Every second that you are in front of the customer you are playing a part, a part defined by Disney in very great detail as we have seen. Wearing a hijab isn’t a component of that part, nor do I think that Disney has an obligation to make it a component of that part. It sounds to me as if they offered a reasonable compromise that would a) perserve what she viewed as her modesty and b) keep her in character. She refused. Too bad for her.

    With regards to the dismissal complaints, I’m guessing (as someone else commented upthread) that it’s related to the overall rise in layoffs due to the economy. It may be that the people involved perceived that they’d been laid off due to their religion when it really had nothing to with it. It may be that the people involved were put in a desperate situation when they lost their jobs and are using any lever they can to either keep their jobs or get a settlement. It may be that some of them were subject to religious-based discrimination – “Hey, as long as we have to get rid of someone let’s get rid of Mohammed.” I have no sympathy for the latter, but I can see where the first two could happen.

  15. 15
    David Schraub says:

    Unless the hat/scarf suggestion was a complete joke, it seems to fit the “reasonable accommodation” standard to a T. Had Disney not made any effort to make accommodations (basically, tried to assert their was no way to have a female employee cover her hair while looking like she was from the 1900s), that would have been absurd, and then I’d think differently. But it sounds like they did their best to make an accommodating proposal in line with the job requirements, and the employee turned them down.

  16. 16
    Dianne says:

    My impression is that Ms. Boudlal is being unreasonable. But, more to the point, even if she’s not, I can’t think of any reasonable law to enact that would rectify the situation. Either Disney has done the right thing or they’ve appeared to do the right thing to the point that there’s no way to legally force them to follow the spirit of the law. From the little I know of Disney, I could well believe the latter, but am not sure of any way to correct the situation. This anecdote aside, though, it’s highly unlikely that the increase in claims is due to a bunch of people suddenly becoming less reasonable in their discrimination claims over the past decade and I’m wondering why the NYT picked this particular anecdote to highlight in detail. Was it supposed to give balance?

  17. 17
    gin-and-whiskey says:

    Muslims are discriminated against, for sure. But from a statistical perspective, it’s not clear whether (or to what degree) the increase in filings reflects an equivalent increase in discrimination against the same behavior.

    Just to randomly toss out a very limited list of some types of things which could, in theory, produce that sort of effect:

    1) increase in discrimination rate with steady reporting %ages and pool of victims. I.e., people have gotten nastier. this is the bad one.

    2) increase in reporting rate without a real change in the rate of discrimination. This could be caused by increased awareness among Muslims, increased third party legal services who target Muslims, etc. Not incidentally, an increase in reporting rate is generally a good thing, even though it makes a “bad statistic” go up. If you hold an employee rights seminar, employees are more likely to protest a violation of their rights.

    3) same level of anti-Muslim sentiment by those who discriminate against them, but change in the behavior of Muslims–for example, a reduction in “closeting” their religious status or beliefs–which would functionally increase the pool of available victims. Boudlal might be a good example of this trend. You can fit this explanation into the general “one usually has to be identifiable as X to be targeted for anti-X discrimination” category. As with the above example, this type of “coming out of the closet” change can be a good thing, even though it has a partially bad result.

    You don’t need to know the cause to think that discrimination is bad. You do need to know the cause if you’re going to talk about the cause: it is by no means clear how this works.

  18. 18
    Sebastian says:

    I think you guys are looking for a lamb under the bull, or whatever that idiom is. This country is invading two Muslim countries right now, Muslims are painted with a large brush in the media, everyone is experiencing hard times, and lashing out at the ones they do not like.

    How many of you have to fire people? Whom do you throw under the bus when someone has to go? I’ve had to let go two out of my three maintenance guys in the last two years. None of them was any worse than the rest (or at least I had not caught them at it) Neither was a personal friend and I did not dislike either of them… Yes, I had to decide, and yes, I did, and no, for legal reasons I did not and will not state how I chose.

    Both of them were of a particular creed/color/nationality, as humans tend to be, and they could have decided that I fired them because of that – I did keep the Hispanic atheist, and guess what, if I have to fire him, he could decide that it’s because I am a racist or a bible-thumper – and he will be wrong, if only about the motivation.

    My best friend has to trim his department – he went strictly by reverse order of hiring, but he will not admit that it’s how he decided – again to cover his ass. The second person he fired was female and very devout – she made noises about being discriminated against – and he told her that she could bring charges if she wanted to, but he would not give her his reasons without a court order.

    As for why the NYT gave that particular example? Well, maybe it was one of the few cases in which the subject’s desire to conform to her religion was clearly what started the difficulties. It’s hard to prove that someone is being fired for his religion, as opposed to the fact he’s a dick.

  19. 19
    Freemage says:

    This definitely comes across as a highly complex issue, with lots of potential causes that could be feeding into the numbers. Human beings being what we are, I suspect that it’s a blend of ‘all of the above, plus three no one’s considered yet’.

    As for Disney, I know someone who works in Disneyland (and someone who used to), and by and large both reported being quite happy there. It is a very extreme corporate culture, and one I would likely not do well with (even if my hair length were not a likely issue). But if you buy into it, it seems to work very well.