By Brian Melley
LOS ANGELES (AP) — The trucker with the long white beard and turban faced a dilemma over work he desperately needed that would require him to violate the tenets of his Sikh religion by cutting hair that had never been cropped.
It wasn’t about the way Lakhbir Singh looked that was an issue – it was just a clipping for a drug test. When he refused to go against one of Sikhism’s five articles of faith, he lost the job.
“It was one of the hardest times of my life,” Singh said through an interpreter of the incident five years ago. “My body went numb and I had tears in my eyes.”
Singh was one of four Sikh truckers from California who will split a $260,000 settlement from J.B. Hunt Transport Services Inc. to resolve discrimination charges, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said Tuesday.
The trucking company failed to provide a religious accommodation by offering an alternative to Singh and two other men who refused to provide hair clippings for drug testing samples and to a fourth man who wouldn’t remove his turban before providing a urine sample for testing, the EEOC said.
Observant Sikhs never cut their hair and wear turbans in public at all times. It is considered shameful and humiliating to remove a turban in public, said Harsimran Kaur, legal director for The Sikh Coalition, a civil rights group that represented the men in the complaint.
“It’s absolutely a challenge for observant Sikhs to maintain unshorn hair,” Kaur said. “The importance of this settlement is that it sends a message to employers that even drug testing regimens do not fall outside the purview of the federal anti-discrimination law. Employers can’t proffer safety as a blanket justification to discriminate.”
J.B. Hunt, which didn’t admit liability, agreed to offer drug testing alternatives to accommodate religious beliefs, revised its anti-discrimination policies and said it would train employees on hiring practices, the EEOC said.
The Arkansas-based company declined to comment, said attorney Kevin Lilly, who represented the company.
The Sikh Coalition said the case could have an impact on other trucking companies and industries. Thousands of Sikhs work as truckers in the U.S. and the group said it has also learned of technology and pharmaceutical companies that asked Sikhs to provide hair samples.
Analysis of hair can detect the presence of drugs several months after use. Alternatives include fingernail clippings, which can also show drug and alcohol use dating back further in time than urine samples.
Ariela Gross, a law professor at the University of Southern California, said hair or headdress issues in employment discrimination cases are typically about appearance in the workplace. While employers can generally set appearance standards – even barring beards or hair styles sometimes associated with certain racial groups – they don’t tend to hold up when applied to religious groups that require a turban or bar them from cutting hair.
Gross said she’d never heard of a case about hair used in drug testing, but said it sounded “relatively straightforward” in requiring an accommodation.
“Where they’re requiring them to cut a piece of their hair for drug testing it seems odd they wouldn’t accept other types of testing alternatives,” Gross said.
Observant Sikhs abstain from alcohol and drug use. They never cut their hair because it’s considered to be in harmony with God’s will.
Singh, who emigrated 20 years ago from Punjab, India, said he always had submitted to urinalysis for other jobs and has never failed drug tests. When J.B. Hunt required the hair clipping while he attended job orientation in 2011, he offered to provide a sample from his comb, but was told it needed to snipped.
After losing the job, he struggled for most of the next five years to find full-time work to support his family. He now works for another trucking company.
As part of the settlement, J.B. Hunt conditionally offered the four men jobs, the EEOC said. The men are not seeking employment with the company, The Sikh Coalition said.