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J.B. Hunt settles Sikh religious discrimination cases for $260K

When four Sikh drivers tried to get jobs at J.B. Hunt Transport Services, Inc., in California, the trucking company told them a drug test was required as a condition of employment. Observant Sikhs don't drink or use drugs, so compliance with the company's policy of remaining drug and alcohol free would not be a problem. All four men needed the jobs, but all four refused to take the drug test.

In three of the cases, the required drug test involved clipping off a sample of hair. In the fourth man's case, he would have been required to remove his turban and then provide a urine sample. For many Sikhs, either would have been problematic. As part of their articles of faith, observant Sikhs never cut their hair, and requiring a man to remove his turban in public is considered humiliating and shameful.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission took up the case because the four men were fully qualified and willing to comply with the company's drug- and alcohol-free workplace policy. They were religiously committed to abstaining from alcohol and drug use; they just couldn't prove it without violating their religious customs.

Aren't employers allowed to turn away job applicants who refuse drug tests?

Generally, yes. Drug- and alcohol-free workplace policies are developed by the company and often require hiring managers to rescind offers of employment when the applicant fails or refuses a drug test. However, companies aren't free to adopt discriminatory policies of any kind. That includes policies that use a neutral-seeming requirement that is actually a pretext for discrimination. It also includes some policies that have a discriminatory effect even that was not intended.

In this case, the EEOC's position was that J.B. Hunt could have accommodated the Sikh applicants' religious beliefs by offering an alternative drug testing method. For example, one of the men had offered to allow a hair sample to be taken from his comb. Moreover, the hiring managers should have been trained on how to accommodate religious beliefs when encountered during hiring.

It's tough for anyone to be turned down for a job, and employment discrimination tends to affect those who can least absorb the blow. In this case, one of the drivers struggled for another five years to find stable employment after J.B. Hunt turned him down. According to an agreement provided to The Associated Press, the trucking company has agreed to pay the plaintiffs a total of $260,000.

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