Supermarket chain Kroger will pay $180,000 to settle a religious discrimination lawsuit after two former employees claimed they were fired from an Arkansas grocery store in 2019 for refusing to wear logos resembling the rainbow Pride flag.
The matter was obtained earlier this week and announced Thursday by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency that investigates claims of employment discrimination based on legally protected classes such as race, sex or religion.
Kroger has denied in the lawsuits that it fired the women because of discrimination based on their religious beliefs and said the rainbow heart aprons were not intended to express support for the LGBTQ community.
Judge Lee Rudofsky of the District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas and a Donald Trump appointee signed off on the settlement after years of litigation. The settlement is between Kroger Limited Partnership I, a subsidiary of the Cincinnati-based supermarket chain, and the EEOC, and requires a store in Conway, Arkansas to create a “religious accommodation policy” and strengthen religious discrimination training it provides store managers. .
Faye Williams, regional attorney for the EEOC, praised the newly agreed religious accommodation policy.
“The parties involved in the case worked in good faith to resolve this matter and the Commission is pleased with the resolution,” Williams said.
As part of the settlement, Kroger will pay the two employees more than $70,000 each, part of a total settlement of $180,000.
The EEOC filed a civil suit against the store September 2020. The lawsuit alleged that the store illegally fired two employees and violated civil rights laws by discriminating against them based on their religion.
The employees – Trudy Rickerd, who was 57 when she was fired, and Brenda Lawson, then 72 – have “sincere religious beliefs” that “homosexuality is a sin”.
In late April 2019, the Conway store began requiring some of its employees to wear a new uniform emblazoned with a rainbow heart, court documents say. The apron prompted at least 10 store employees, including Rickerd and Lawson, to immediately voice their objections to the logo, which they thought resembled the LGBTQ Pride flag. Kroger said in court filings that the uniforms are not intended to show support for the LGBTQ community.
According to court documents, since 2012, Kroger had been conducting market research to learn how to better connect with its customers on an emotional level. By June 2018, Kroger had developed a customer service campaign the company called “Our Promise” based on four commitments, including “getting better every day” and creating a “kind and caring environment,” according to the fact sheet. a general agreement was reached between the two parties.
To represent the four commitments, the company designed a heart-shaped logo with four different colors. That logo was placed on new uniforms released that year, but it didn’t make it to the company’s Delta division, which includes the Conway store, until 2019, according to court documents.
According to court documents, employee disapproval of some of the uniforms stems from a news release earlier that year that suggested Kroger had named the entire company, which has multiple U.S. locations, as “one of the best places to work.” For LGBTQ equality. The designation came from the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBTQ advocacy group.
However, according to an anonymous employee complaint sent to Kroger’s ethics hotline at the Conway store, there was a “culture of bigotry and hatred” toward LGBTQ people among the store’s older, more religious employees. The complaint, which was cited in the judge’s June 23 ruling, alleged that those employees were creating a false impression about the uniforms.
“The aprons are seen as Kroger’s way of promoting its LGBTQ agenda, even though it has nothing to do with it,” the complaint said.
After weeks of refusing to wear uniforms or trying to cover up the rainbow logo, Rickerd and Lawson were fired in late May and early June, respectively, court documents say. They then filed a complaint with the EEOC.
Conway-based attorney David Hogue, who represents Rickerd and Lawson, said his client’s life was significantly affected when they were fired because they planned to retire at Kroger. But he said he thought some people misunderstood his position.
“This was not a judgmental stance against the LGBTQ community; it was just a position of not wanting to support the LGBTQ community,” he said.
Kroger did not immediately respond to NBC News’ request for comment.
This isn’t the first time Conway, Arkansas has made national news recently. Earlier this month, the city was in the national spotlight for a public school board meeting that adopted an anti-transgender bathroom policy along with bans on two books with LGBTQ-related content. A man who was filmed saying LGBTQ people at a meeting “deserves death.” A spokeswoman for Conway Public Schools said the school district does not support the man’s allegations.
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