Business

Chipotle Manager Pulled Off Worker’s Hijab, U.S. Says in Lawsuit

An assistant manager at a Chipotle restaurant in Kansas pulled off an employee’s hijab, according to a federal lawsuit that contains allegations of religious harassment that a federal official described as “quite egregious.”

The manager, Kevin Silva Garcia, harassed a Muslim employee, Areej Saifan, multiple times in 2021 by asking to see her hair, according to the lawsuit, which was filed on Wednesday by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Ms. Saifan, who was 19 at the time, explained that removing her hijab would be akin to removing her clothing, according to the complaint.

Yet the manager persisted until one day he “reached out, grabbed her hijab,” a head covering worn in public by some Muslim women for cultural or religious reasons, and “yanked,” according to the complaint. Her hair was exposed, and only the pins holding the hijab in place kept it from falling to the ground, court papers said.

Mr. Garcia’s actions at the Lenexa, Kan., restaurant “created a hostile working environment based on religion,” the complaint says.

The suit, which was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Kansas, cites unlawful harassment, retaliation and constructive discharge, a condition in which an employer creates a work environment so intolerable that an employee is forced to resign.

“The nature of these allegations in Ms. Saifan’s case caught our attention,” Joshua M. Pierson, supervisory trial attorney at the E.E.O.C., said. “They were quite egregious.”

Laurie Schalow, the chief corporate affairs and food safety officer for Chipotle, said in a statement that the company had a “zero tolerance policy” for discrimination of any kind and “terminated the employee in question.”

“We encourage our employees to contact us immediately, including through an anonymous 800 number, with any concerns so we can investigate and respond quickly to make things right,” she said.

Ms. Saifan complained to Kim Benavente-Fernandez, a shift manager, about Mr. Garcia’s behavior. On at least one occasion, Ms. Benavente-Fernandez told Mr. Garcia to stop asking to see Ms. Saifan’s hair but took no further action, the lawsuit said.

Mr. Garcia and Ms. Benavente-Fernandez could not be immediately reached for comment on Sunday.

Ms. Saifan also reported what happened to a field manager and a store manager, according to the complaint, although the timeline was unclear.

A day after the hijab episode, Ms. Saifan gave her two weeks’ notice as “a result of Garcia’s threats and management’s repeated failures to address the harassment,” according to court documents.

During that two weeks, Chipotle did not assign her any shifts, which was atypical of the company’s practice, the complaint said.

The store manager contacted Ms. Saifan to ask if she would like to transfer to a different location as a way to keep her job, according to court records.

Ten days after Ms. Saifan resigned, Chipotle terminated Mr. Garcia. Chipotle did not terminate him because of his conduct toward Ms. Saifan, according to the complaint.

Instead, according to court papers, he was fired for violating company policy for engaging in a consensual romantic relationship with Ms. Benavente-Fernandez.


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