Alaska Airlines’ flight attendant uniform policy discriminates against nonbinary workers by forcing them to “conform to rigid gender stereotypes,” the ACLU alleged in a Friday letter demanding that the airline, based in Seattle, alter its dress code.
The American Civil Liberties Union wrote the letter on behalf of Seattle-based flight attendant Justin Wetherell, whose gender identity is nonbinary, or not strictly male or female, and whose gender expression is fluid and can change over time.
Alaska Airlines allegedly has “male” and “female” dress and grooming requirements, allowing transgender workers to adhere to standards that match their gender identity, according to the letter. But the policy “demeans employees who do not conform to gender stereotypes and materially interferes with their ability to do their jobs under equal terms and conditions as other employees.”
“Justin has repeatedly been refused the opportunity to meet and discuss flight attendant standards with executive management, and Justin’s perspective as a nonbinary individual and complaints of discrimination have been summarily dismissed,” the letter said, alleging that the airline’s policy violates Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and Washington state law.
Wetherell has filed a discrimination complaint with the Washington State Human Rights Commission, the ACLU told Bloomberg Law. Workers generally must file bias charges with an administrative agency before they can sue, at least under federal law.
Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that Title VII prohibited workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation and transgender status, but didn’t specifically address dress codes and other related LGBT issues. Democrats are pushing legislation to further expand federal civil rights protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals.
“Policies such as the Alaska Airlines uniform policy, under which a woman faces discipline or disadvantage for dressing in a manner that would be permitted if she were a man, (or a man faces discipline or disadvantage for dressing in a manner that would be permitted if he were a woman) discriminate ‘but for’ the employee’s sex within the meaning of Title VII,” the letter said.
ACLU senior staff attorneys Joshua Block and Galen Leigh Sherwin and ACLU of Washington Foundation staff attorney Lisa Nowlin signed the letter.
Airline’s new guidelines
Alaska Airlines spokeswoman Cailee Olson said in an emailed statement that the company is a “longtime supporter of the LGBTQ+ community,” and has been a “leader in the industry when it comes to inclusivity in our uniform and grooming standards, which have been informed by our employees and developed in accordance with federal and state laws.”
Over the past year, she said, the company has introduced new guidelines designed to give flight attendants more inclusive uniform options.
Since early 2020, for example, all flight attendants have been able to order any pant or parka style and have been able to select the uniform kit of their choice, regardless of gender identity, Olson said.
“We will also implement new gender-neutral hair policies that will allow all flight attendants to wear their hair down when not handling food, regardless of gender,” she said. “We are committed to continuing to explore uniform and grooming standards for our flight attendants. We know we cannot do this alone, and appreciate the feedback and partnership we have with our flight attendant community.”
Asked for a response, the ACLU’s Block said in an emailed statement, “As our letter makes clear, if Alaska Airlines continues to require that employees adhere to either a predetermined “male” uniform kit and grooming standards or a “female” uniform kit and grooming standards, it will be violating the Washington Law Against Discrimination and Title VII.”
He added, “We hope that after further consideration Alaska Airlines will work with us voluntarily to bring its uniform policy into full compliance with the law.”