Washington state Human Rights Commission says Alaska Airlines uniform policy is likely discriminatory

Story at a glance

  • Alaska Airlines’ dress code likely violates state law, the Human Rights Commission of Washington state said Monday in a reasonable cause finding.

  • The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and its Washington state affiliate last year sent a letter to the airline on behalf of a nonbinary flight attendant asking Alaska Airlines to stop enforcing its stringent uniform policy.

  • Under new uniform guidelines announced in March, certain restrictions have been lifted, but there are some exceptions.

An Alaska Airlines policy that requires flight attendants to wear either “masculine” or “feminine” uniforms is likely discriminatory, the Human Rights Commission of Washington state, where the airline is headquartered, said Monday.

According to the commission, Alaska Airlines had forced employees, including Justin Wetherell, a nonbinary flight attendant, that identify as neither male nor female to fit into a “binary uniform system,” likely violating a Washington state law that prohibits discrimination based on gender identity, appearance, behavior or expression.

A “preponderance of evidence” supports a claim made by Wetherell in 2021 that the airline had discriminated against them, the commission wrote Monday in a reasonable cause finding. The finding notes that the stringent uniform policy violates a state law barring employers from “requiring an individual to dress or groom in a manner that is not consistent with that individual’s gender expression or gender identity.”

Alaska Airlines in March announced updates to its uniform policy, which had previously required flight attendants to adhere to a rigid set of “male” and “female” dress and grooming standards.

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Under the airline’s new uniform guidelines, restrictions on fingernail polish, tattoos and piercings have been relaxed, and “male” and “female” uniform kits have been renamed to “masculine” and “feminine” kits to be inclusive of all gender identities.

There are some exceptions to the new policy, and flight attendants with facial hair, for instance, may not wear pieces from the “feminine” kit, no matter their gender identity. Details related to dress or grooming standards for a promised gender-neutral uniform kit have not been released.

Wetherell argued — and the state Human Rights Commission agreed — that the airline’s updated dress code is still discriminatory because employees like Wetherell are only able to wear the “masculine” look because they have facial hair.

“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 Monday in a statement released by their attorneys at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

“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 said.

The ACLU and its Washington state affiliate in a letter sent to Alaska Airlines last year on Wetherell’s behalf urged the airline to abandon its previous dress code, which the groups said was inconsistent with state and federal law.

“These rigid, binary uniform requirements are more than a mere inconvenience,” they wrote in the letter. “By forcing our client and countless other employees to adhere to Alaska Airlines’ preferred vision of how men and women should appear, the uniform policy demeans employees who do not conform to gender stereotypes and materially interferes with their ability to do their jobs under equal terms and conditions as other employees.”

In a responss posted posted to the airline’s website soon after the letter was published, Alaska Airlines said it has been “a longtime supporter of the LGBTQ+ community” and a “leader in the industry” when it comes to uniform and grooming standards.

“We are committed to making Alaska a place where everyone feels respected and belongs and proudly celebrate the diversity of our employees this Pride month and all year long,” the airline wrote, referring to LGBTQ+ Pride Month, celebrated in June.

The ACLU on Monday pushed back on that claim, arguing that the airline’s uniform policy reinforces “archaic and harmful gender stereotypes” that affect anyone, regardless of gender identity, that “does not fit Alaska Airlines’ preferred image of either male or female.”

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