May 28, 2014
Vol: 21 No: 22

News

Gate Gourmet lawsuit: State Supreme Court rules employers must accommodate workers’ religious belief

By Aaron Burkhalter , Staff Reporter

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Washington employers are obligated to make reasonable accommodations for employees’ religious beliefs, according to a Washington Supreme Court opinion issued May 22.

The decision clarifies a state law that bars discrimination based on race, gender or sexual orientation. The court opinion stated that the Washington anti-discrimination law implies religion, even though it is not stated specifically.

The opinion stems from a dispute between Gate Gourmet and its employees over meals that were served to employees.

Gate Gourmet prepares meals — including kosher and hallal meals — that are served on planes departing from Sea-Tac Airport. The workers are not allowed to bring meals to work for security reasons, so Gate Gourmet serves three hot meals a day.

Employees 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.

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, 2012).

Former King County Superior Judge Mary Yu had dismissed the case in 2013, because there was nothing in state law that required employers to make accommodations for religious beliefs.

The Washington Supreme Court ruling means that Kumar can pursue the case in the King County Superior Court.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington applauded the decision, which strengthens state laws.

“This is another layer of protection for Washington employees,” said Margaret Chen, a lawyer with the ACLU.

Federal law prohibits religious discrimination but has a longer and more expensive legal process, Rosenberg said. Employees first have to file a complaint with the Employment Opportunity Commission.

Federal law also protects only people working for businesses with 15 or more employees. State discrimination laws apply to businesses with eight or more employees.

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.

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.

A spokesperson for Gate Gourmet declined to comment on the case.

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