Aviation

Alaska Airlines’ gendered uniform policy is likely discriminatory, Washington state commission finds

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The Washington State Commission on Human Rights said Monday that Alaska Airlines’ dress code policy requiring employees to wear either its “masculine” or “feminine” uniform is likely discriminatory.

The commission issued a “reasonable cause finding” of discrimination against the Seattle-based airline over the enforcement of its uniform policy in which flight attendants are forced to conform to a rigid set of gendered dress and grooming standards — which means that the company dictates whether employees may wear dresses or skirts; ties or neck scarves; have facial hair, or even wear lipstick.

The case stems from a complaint filed in December 2020 by Justin Wetherell, a flight attendant and flight-attendant instructor who was hired by the airline in July 2015.

Wetherell, who’s nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns, alleged that their employer discriminated against them for forcing them to fit into a “binary uniform system.”

The airline also refused to make an exception for Wetherell, according to the complaint.

“A preponderance of the evidence” supports that the employee was discriminated against on basis of gender identity and gender expression, the commission wrote in its investigative finding report.

Wetherell was treated less favorably than flight attendants who identify as either male or female because while they have uniform kits designed for them, and Wetherell was forced “to try fitting into a binary uniform system despite identifying as neither male nor female,” the commission wrote. It added that Wetherell also made “multiple requests for exceptions to the uniform policy that would have allowed them to dress and groom according to their gender identity.”

“The illegal and discriminatory uniform policy maintained by Alaska Airlines forces employees like me to dress and groom in a manner inconsistent with our gender identities and gender expressions,” Wetherell said in a statement.

“There is no reason for the airline to continue to enforce this illegal policy — other than to maintain an outdated and discriminatory ideal of gender,” they added.

In June 2021, the American Civil Liberties Union and its Washington affiliate sent a letter to Alaska Airlines urging the company to stop enforcing the gendered uniform policy, alleging that doing so is a violation of Washington state law, “which explicitly prohibits discrimination based on gender identity, appearance, behavior, or expression and violates state and federal prohibitions against sex discrimination,” according to the ACLU.

The airline responded in a statement saying that the company has been “a longtime supporter of the LGBTQ+ community,” adding that “since 2020, all flight attendants have been able to order any pant or parka style and have been able to select the uniform kit of their choice, regardless of gender identity.”

On Monday, Linda Morris, staff attorney for the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project, said that “the airline’s uniform policy reflects and reinforces archaic and harmful gender stereotypes.”

The ACLU hopes that the commission’s finding “serves as a wake-up call for Alaska Airlines to immediately remove these gendered restrictions from its policy in accordance with their employees’ rights,” Morris said.

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