Workplace Discrimination Against Muslims

Karim Lakhani

Karim Lakhani is a student at Harvard Law School.

It’s a difficult time to be a Muslim in America.  Since the tragic events of September 11, 2001, Muslim Americans have faced greater scrutiny, with recent global events triggering further anti-Muslim rhetoric in the United States and abroad.  According to a 2015 Pew Research Center study, 39% of Americans and 49% of Republicans believe that Muslims in America should be subject to more scrutiny than people of other religions.

Anti-Muslim sentiment has translated into a serious issue of anti-Muslim discrimination in the workplace.  After September 11th, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) saw a 250% increase in cases of religion-based discrimination against Muslims.  Since 2002, Muslims continue to make up a disproportionate amount of the commission’s religion-based discrimination charges, hovering over 20%.

While in office, President Obama spoke out against Muslim discrimination on several occasions.  Last July, seen as a response to the growing anti-Muslim rhetoric of then candidate Trump’s campaign, President Obama called discriminatory policies against Muslims an insult to the “values that already make our nation great.”

The EEOC looked poised to further take on discrimination against Muslims in the workplace under President Obama.  Last September, the commission adopted its strategic enforcement plan for 2017 to 2021.  Among other things, the plan added the “emerging issue” of anti-Muslim discrimination to its list of priorities.  Specifically, the plan called for a focus on “backlash discrimination against those who are Muslim or Sikh, or persons of Arab, Middle Eastern or South Asian descent, as well as persons perceived to be members of these groups, as tragic events in the United States and abroad have increased the likelihood of discrimination against these communities.”

It’s not clear how anti-Muslim workplace discrimination will evolve under President Trump’s administration.  The President appointed Commissioner Victoria Lipnic as the acting chair of the EEOC shortly after taking office.  Lipnic, a Republican, voted against the strategic enforcement plan that called for an increased focus on discrimination against Muslims and is expected to move the commission in a conservative direction.

Further, there is no indication that the President’s closest advisors plan on making discrimination against Muslims in the workplace a priority, as many of them have a history of criticizing Islam as a whole, a religion of roughly 1.6 billion people.  Michael Flynn, President Trump’s now former National Security Adviser, has said: “Islam is not necessarily a religion but a political system that has a religious doctrine behind it.”  While acknowledging that Islam is indeed a religion, Steve Bannon, the President’s Chief Strategist, said it was not one of peace but one of submission.

President Trump himself has used extremely hostile rhetoric in reference to Muslims.  In addition to being open to a registry of Muslims in America, the President has previously called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” a promise many people believe he began working towards in implementing his recent controversial immigration ban.

Facing discrimination in hiring and in the workplace, Muslims working in America will likely need to look elsewhere to find support for their cause.

Discrimination in Hiring

According to a 2013 Carnegie Mellon study, Muslims may face a tougher time being hired when their social media profiles exposed their religious affiliation.  Controlling for job candidate profiles on various social network sites, researchers submitted over four thousand job applications.  At a national level, Muslim candidates received a 13% lower callback rate as compared to their Christian counterparts.

The results were more striking at a local level.  In counties across the county with a large percentage of Republican voters, the study found severe bias both against the Muslim candidates and in favor of the Christian ones, with Christian candidates receiving callbacks at almost four times the rate of Muslim candidates.  In Republican states, the differences were the most profound; while about 17% of Christian candidates received invitations to interview, only about 2% of Muslim candidates received invitations.

There are many ways a candidate’s social media profile may give away their religion, including prayers posted in profile descriptions or posts, check-ins at religious events, and references to religious holidays.  Perhaps the most telling indicator can be found simply in a candidate’s social media profile picture, which may display a common practice of Muslim men keeping beards and Muslim women wearing head coverings.  Although the stigma related to beards has lessened as they have grown more fashionable and widespread, Muslim women continue to face unique visibility and prejudice when choosing to wear a headscarf.

Discrimination in the Workplace

Once hired, Muslims often face widespread discrimination in the workplace.  Though some national and local laws guarantee workers “reasonable accommodations” to allow for their religious observances, many employers are unwilling to make even minor arrangements.  To take one example, last month, New York City officials charged Pax Assist, a company that provides wheelchair services to passengers at John F. Kennedy International Airport, with discriminatory practices when they denied their Muslim employees prayer breaks and denied their requests to move their work break to after sunset during the holiday month of Ramadan.  During the holy month of Ramadan, Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset.  For employees who work later in the day, for example from 4pm to midnight, not having a chance to break fast means not eating or drinking for even longer.  In denying employee requests to move breaks, Pax Assit supervisors allegedly said: “We don’t care about Ramadan. We’ll give you a break on our time, not your time.”

Muslims face further discrimination when employers ban their freedom to grow beards or wear head coverings.  Some employers cite practical or safety concerns in enforcing such policies.  For example, in a ban against beards that was relaxed last December, the New York Police Department had previously cited concerns about beards potentially interfering with the use of gas masks.

Other employers rely on appearance, grooming, and uniform guidelines to enforce these policies.  For example, in 2015, the EEOC filed suit against UPS, alleging that the company’s “clean-cut” policy unfairly restricted beards for customer-facing employees, while at the same time waiting months or years to respond to religious accommodation requests.  In addition, in a 2015 decision, the Supreme Court ruled against Abercrombie & Fitch, holding that the company violated civil rights law when it failed to accommodate a job applicant who wore a hijab that violated the company’s “look policy.”  Some employers justify appearance policies banning beards and head coverings by citing the impact these displays of religious observance have on customers, including making them feel uncomfortable.

Demanding Public Commitments

Unable to rely on the current administration to improve conditions for Muslims working in America, consumers must demand that companies publicly commit to nondiscriminatory practices against Muslim employees.  Providing Muslim employees an opportunity for prayer breaks is unlikely to have a severe impact on productivity, as most Muslims can complete prayer in three to five minutes, not much longer than a bathroom or smoke break may take.  Further, banning beards or head coverings in an attempt not to discomfit customers is not only illegal but does nothing to improve the public’s comfort with American Muslims.

When companies openly oppose discrimination, they send powerful messages to politicians and to the public about their values.  Last year, in response to North Carolina’s passing of transgender bathroom restrictions, companies from PayPal to Deutsche Bank reneged on promises to invest or hire in the state.  More recently, in response to President Trump’s recent controversial executive orders on immigration, companies have similarly spoken out, with Starbucks specifically promising to hire 10,000 refugees.  Despite the administration’s actions and fear mongering rhetoric, the American public should use its influence to demand that companies publicly commit to doing more to protect Muslims against discrimination in the workplace.

Enjoy OnLabor’s fresh takes on the day’s labor news, right in your inbox.