Monday, August 18, 2014

EEOC Sues Employer over Alleged “Onionhead” Religious Practices in the Workplace

 
 

I have to confess, I had never heard of “Onionhead” before reading a recent article in the Wall Street Journal entitled “EEOC’s New Religion.”  The article concerned the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filing a lawsuit against United Health Programs of America, Inc., a Syosset, New York.-based health network, for allegedly coercing employees to participate in religious practices and terminating those employees who objected or did not participate fully.  As described by the EEOC in its lawsuit:

These activities included group prayers, candle burning, and discussions of spiritual texts. The religious practices are part of a belief system that the defendants' family member created, called "Onionhead."  Employees were told wear Onionhead buttons, pull Onionhead cards to place near their work stations and keep only dim lighting in the workplace.

 
The EEOC filed suit in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York (Civil Action No. 14-cv-3673) after conciliation efforts failed.  The company claims that “Onionhead” is not a religion but is instead a workplace wellness program.  As described in the Wall Street Journal article:

The problem is that Onionhead, as it turns out, isn't a religion at all, but rather "a cartoon character used to peel layers for problem solving and conflict resolution skills," and is intended "to empower employees, improve communication and foster teamwork," according to a letter sent by the defendants' attorney, David J. Sutton, to Judge Kiyo A. Matsumoto last week. The employees voluntarily agreed to participate in Onionhead and never asked to opt out of the program, as other workers had.


The Wall Street Journal excoriates the EEOC for bringing such a frivolous lawsuit and in a statement, the company said “[t]he EEOC lawsuit is completely devoid of merit and we expect that it will be summarily dismissed.”  After looking at the case, I’m not so sure.
As related in my last posting, “Mad Men: The EEOC Advertisesits Aggressive Agenda”, in recent years, the EEOC certainly has been guilty of overreach in its implementation of the agency's Strategic Enforcement Plan for 2013 – 2016.  At first glance, the agency suing an employer over a cartoon character named “Onionhead” seems ridiculous and par for the course for the EEOC.
 
However, in looking over the allegations in the Complaint and other reports, if “Onionhead” is not a religion and merely a workplace wellness program, it certainly bears at least some of the trappings of a religious practice and at best is very close to the line.  Religion lawsuits under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 usually involve an employer’s failure to reasonably accommodate an employee’s religious practice.  However, as alleged in the EEOC’s lawsuit, forcing an employee to take part in workplace religious practices, and taking an adverse employment action when they object also would be a Title VII violation. 
As mentioned above, I have very little information on “Onionhead” or its practitioners, and the EEOC’s lawsuit could very well be a loser for the agency if the court finds the employer has done nothing wrong.  In the EEOC’s case, it is alleged that a family member of the company’s owners conceived the “Onionhead” program, and that might explain best why the company implemented it. 
Having said all that, if a client approached me about implementing such a program in the workplace, I would consider it “just asking for trouble” and would strongly advise against it.
Mark Fijman is a labor and employment attorney with Phelps Dunbar, LLC, which has offices in Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida, Texas, Alabama, North Carolina and London. To view his firm bio, click here. He can be reached at (601) 360-9716 and by e-mail at fijmanm@phelps.com