A lawsuit filed by workers who prepare meals for airline passengers could set a legal precedent that Washington state employers must accommodate their employees’ religious beliefs.
The Washington State Supreme Court is considering a class-action lawsuit filed by employees of Gate Gourmet’s facility at Sea-Tac Airport, who say they were served mislabeled pork and beef even though 58 of the employees have special diets. Some are Ethiopian Orthodox Christians, Jews or Muslims who don’t eat pork; some are Hindu and don’t eat beef; others are vegetarian.
Until 2012, the workers were not allowed to bring meals to work for security reasons, so Gate Gourmet served three hot meals a day.
Attorneys representing both the employees and Gate Gourmet gave oral arguments to the Washington State Supreme Court Oct. 22.
In three to six months, the State Supreme Court will determine whether it was Gate Gourmet’s responsibility to provide meals that fit the religious and ethical beliefs of their employees.
A state law bans discrimination in the workplace but does not specifically say that employers must make accommodations for employees’ religious needs.
Attorneys representing the employees say state and federal laws clearly ban discrimination of any kind.
The fact that the law doesn’t specify religion is irrelevant, attorney Seth Rosenberg told Real Change: “The court is charged with broadly interpreting the law,” he said.
Gate Gourmet’s attorneys disagreed, arguing that if lawmakers wanted to force employers to make accommodations for employees’ religious beliefs, they would have written that into the law.
“There is no language,” Shane Sagheb, Gate Gourmet’s attorney, told the State Supreme Court Oct. 22. “The legislature has had the ability to correct that.”
Gate Gourmet employee James Kumar filed the class-action lawsuit in 2012, after a months-long debate with Gate Gourmet managers over the content of the meals served to employees (“Trouble on the menu,” RC, Nov. 7-13, 2012).
In 2011, while working at Gate Gourmet at Sea-Tac, Kumar noticed a box of meatballs contained beef and pork, but in the cafeteria they were not labeled as such. Kumar is Hindu, and his religion teaches that cows are sacred and not to be eaten.
When Kumar complained, Gate Gourmet replaced the pork and beef meatballs with turkey meatballs, but reverted back to pork and beef after a few months, Kumar said. As a result, several Gate Gourmet employees accidentally ate pork and beef from the cafeteria, in violation of their dietary restrictions.
Given that Gate Gourmet prepares a variety of specialized meals for the airlines it serves, the situation is especially ironic, Kumar’s attorneys said.
“Their business model is they make food that fits the dietary preferences of their passengers: hallal, vegetarian, kosher,” attorney Aaron Rocke told the State Supreme Court. “They make their employees eat food that makes them unclean and impure.”
Gate Gourmet started allowing employees to bring lunch to work in 2012, but workers say the company also needs to help right past wrongs. Some workers who accidentally ate pork or beef at Gate Gourmet say they violated their religion and need to travel to sacred sites to be cleansed.
Kumar said he needs to travel to India for a cleansing ritual that lasts 10 days. The flight to India would cost $1,200 to $2,000.
The employees are asking for up to $20,000 per employee to pay for travel, lodging and expenses to cover the trips.
If employees of Gate Gourmet win, it would set a precedent for how other employers should handle employees’ religious beliefs, Rosenberg said.
It could also give employees a legal tool to challenge employers on things like cafeteria food and work schedules.
“It’s going to impose a duty on employers to engage in an interactive dialogue with their employees about how they can reasonably accommodate their reasonably held beliefs,” Rosenberg said.