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US lawsuit claims Chipotle manager forcefully removed employee's hijab

He allegedly demanded to see her hair at least 10 times over course of one month, until one day he pulled her hijab off
A man walks past a Chipotle restaurant in the Columbia Heights neighbourhood of Washington DC, on 8 February 2016 (AFP)

A federal agency filed a lawsuit against Chipotle, alleging religious harassment and retaliation after a manager forcibly removed an employee's hijab.

In a legal complaint filed on Wednesday in Kansas City, Kansas, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission claims that in 2021, assistant manager Kevin Silva Garcia, who worked at a Chipotle restaurant in Lenexa, Kansas, persistently harassed Areej Saifan, who was 19 years old at the time and employed at the branch, by requesting to see her hair and ignoring her consistent refusals. 

In the lawsuit, the commission is seeking that Chipotle implement policies ensuring equal job opportunities for employees from all religious backgrounds and compensation to Saifan for damages.

“People of faith have a right to work free from harassment based on their religious beliefs and practices,” Andrea G Baran, regional attorney for the commission’s St Louis district office, said.

“Harassment of women and teen girls who choose to express their religious beliefs by wearing modest clothing or head coverings is never acceptable.”

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According to the complaint, Garcia demanded to see her hair at least 10 times over the course of one month. Saifan refused every time, explaining to him that she wore it because of her religious beliefs. 

The complaint states that Saifan reported her discomfort due to the incidents to another supervisor, but no subsequent measures were taken against the manager.

After enduring weeks of harassment, the situation escalated when the assistant manager forcibly grabbed and took off her hijab while she was closing the restaurant on 9 August 2021. 

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“Her hair was exposed, and only the pins holding the hijab in place kept it from falling to the ground,” The New York Times reported.

The next day, Saifan submitted her two-week notice of resignation. During that period, Chipotle did not allocate any shifts, whereas when other non-Muslim employees had given their notice, they were still scheduled to work, as per the complaint's claims.

The manager’s “offensive and incessant requests” that she remove her hijab, and his attempt to physically take it off, were “unwelcome, intentional, severe, based on religion, and created a hostile working environment based on religion”, the complaint says.

Ten days after Saifan resigned, Garcia was terminated by Chipotle. The complaint says that his dismissal was not a result of his behaviour towards Saifan. Court documents reveal that he was terminated for breaching company policy by having a consensual romantic relationship with a shift manager, the New York Times reported. 

According to Chipotle’s chief corporate affairs officer Laurie Schalow, “We have a zero-tolerance policy for discrimination of any kind and we have terminated the employee in question,” she told the Associated Press. 

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