The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has sued Chipotle after receiving a complaint about the harassment of and retaliation toward a teenage Muslim employee at one of its stores in Lenexa, Kansas.
An assistant manager repeatedly asked a 19-year-old employee to remove her hijab so he could see her hair, according to a complaint filed Wednesday in the U.S. District Court for the District of Kansas.
He even forcibly removed the head covering partially in one instance, but Chipotle didn’t discipline and failed to protect the teen from ongoing harassment, according to the complaint.
The assistant manager’s “conduct was egregious, humiliating, and intimidating” in addition to violating federal civil rights law, according to the lawsuit.
“People of faith have a right to work free from harassment based on their religious beliefs and practices,” Andrea G. Baran, a regional attorney for the EEOC’s St. Louis District office, said in a statement. “Harassment of women and teen girls who choose to express their religious beliefs by wearing modest clothing or head coverings is never acceptable.”
The teen employee, who worked as a line server, told the assistant manager repeatedly that she wore the headscarf in observance of her Muslim faith and that removing it would be akin to removing an article of clothing.
Over the course of a month in the summer of 2021, the assistant manager asked the teen to remove her hijab “approximately 10 to 15 times.”
Each time, including many times when the inappropriate request was made in front of other staff, the teen employee explained that she couldn’t for religious reasons.
Some instances of the assistant manager’s harassment took place in front of a shift manager.
The harassment culminated on Aug. 9, 2021, when the assistant manager “grabbed her hijab, and yanked,” leaving it secured only by the pins she wore in her hair.
The shift manager witnessed the incident, which took place as she closed the restaurant along with the teen and assistant manager.
The assistant manager’s “offensive and incessant requests that Saifan remove her hijab and expose her hair were unwelcome, intentional, severe, pervasive, based on religion, and created a hostile working environment based on religion,” according to the complaint.
The teen escalated her reports of harassment to the store manager and field manager before putting in her two weeks’ notice on Aug. 10, 2021.
Chipotle did not schedule her for any more shifts, though other employees who had put in their two weeks were typically allowed to work, the lawsuit alleges.
One week after the Muslim teen put in her notice, the store manager asked if she wanted to transfer to a different location, but she wasn’t scheduled to return to the store where she originally worked.
The assistant manager was allowed to continue working at the store until he was fired on Aug. 20, 2021, after it was discovered that he was engaged in a romantic relationship with the shift manager, a subordinate, in violation of Chipotle policy.
The restaurant chain issued a statement to Scripps News Kansas City: “We have a zero tolerance policy for discrimination of any kind and we have terminated the employee in question,” Chipotle’s Chief Corporate Affairs Officer Laurie Schalow said. “Chipotle’s engaged and hard-working employees are what makes us great, and we encourage our employees to contact us immediately, including through an anonymous 800 number, with any concerns so we can investigate and respond quickly to make things right.”
Scripps News Kansas City has followed up with Chipotle to confirm whether the employee was terminated for the alleged harassment or another matter and is awaiting a response from the company.
The lawsuit alleges that the teen employee suffered damages for which Chipotle was liable, “including but not limited to lost earnings and benefits, emotional pain, suffering, embarrassment, and inconvenience.”
The complaint requests that a trial for an unspecified amount of damages takes place in Kansas City, Kansas.
“Individuals should not have to choose between their sincerely held religious beliefs and their jobs,” David Davis, the director of the EEOC’s St. Louis District Office, said in a statement. “Federal law protects the rights of all workers to observe their religious practices free from harassment and retaliation.”
The EEOC’s St. Louis office investigates employment discrimination in Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska and south Illinois. It has satellite offices in KCK and Oklahoma City.
This story was originally published by Tod Palmer at Scripps News Kansas City.