Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Sikhs and others who maintain religiously-mandated facial hair have been forced to consider shaving to wear N-95 respirators or risk being terminated from their jobs.
The Sikh Coalition has been at the forefront of the fight to protect religious rights since the beginning of the pandemic. In March of 2020, we released a memo with the North American Sikh Medical and Dental Association (NASMDA) offering guidance for healthcare professionals on how to proactively request and secure a religious accommodation for a Powered Air Purifying Respirator (PAPR) or other suitable personal protective equipment (PPE) from their employers. Then, in May, we again worked with NASMDA to produce a letter to fully inform healthcare professionals of their rights when it comes to articles of faith. In September, we worked with U.S.-based nonprofit Direct Relief to secure a donation of PAPRs for healthcare professionals in need and better publicize the legal issue that Sikhs were facing in the workplace.
In April of 2021, Sikh Coalition Legal Director Amrith Kaur Aakre testified before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), asking them to hold employers accountable and recognize civil rights challenges faced by Sikhs and other minority communities brought on by the pandemic–including the issue of PPE accommodations for individuals who maintain kesh. In response to our recommendations, the EEOC published guidance on pandemic requirements for workplaces that informs employers of their obligations to accommodate requests for alternative PPE.
In August of 2021, the Sikh Coalition met with and delivered recommendations to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration which included ensuring that their policies be interpreted in an unbiased manner and that PAPRs be viewed as necessary PPE for employees with facial hair rather than as an alternative requiring special accommodations; read their response here. In the same month, the Sikh Coalition also delivered recommendations to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. These recommendations highlighted the challenges related to certain PPE for the Sikh community, including the need for research and development towards innovative PPE technology so that more options will be increasingly accessible to employees with religious or medical requirements that do not allow for the use of more readily available apparatuses.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has contributed to greater religion-based employment discrimination… We strongly urge the EEOC to acknowledge this harm which continues to grow as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and to hold employers accountable.”
Former Sikh Coalition Legal Director Amrith Kaur Aakre testifies before the EEOC on April 28, 2021
Why It Matters
The COVID-19 pandemic has seen a disturbing trend affecting the Sikh community: a significant increase in religious discrimination in the workplace, specifically including healthcare providers and medical/dental schools, which is reducing equality of opportunity for Sikhs and other minority communities. While the public health challenges of the pandemic are ongoing, the legal obligation of employers to keep their employees safe while respecting religious rights has not changed: No one should be forced to make a false choice between their faith or profession.
If you or someone you know has been told by an employer to shave facial hair in response to COVID-19, please contact the Sikh Coalition’s legal team for free and confidential legal aid immediately. We can guide you through the process of securing a religious accommodation with the goal of finding a quick resolution between you and your employer.