GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. - A teen’s beard sparked a controversy in the workplace: a Muslim employee told FOX 17 that after he explained he could not shave for religious reasons, his managers at a Grand Rapids McDonald’s told him to “go home and shave,” and refused to give him a beard net.
“Religion comes before everything,” said Shujaa Wright. “I wouldn’t shave my beard to work at McDonald’s or any place.”
For Wright, 16, religion is an everyday practice, and it has been for years: as he showed FOX 17 a family picture taken at a 2011 Ramadan celebration.
“Whenever somebody asks me, ‘are you Muslim?’ I say it with pride on my chest. I’m like, ‘Yes I am: I pray five times per day, I follow the Quran and Sunnah, I follow the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him,'” said Wright.
Wright recently landed his first job at the McDonald’s on Kalamazoo Avenue SE and 60th Street SE. As part of his devotion, Wright said he has never shaved his facial hair, which is something that goes against work policy.
However, starting at orientation Monday, Wright said managers gave him mixed messages.
“We went through orientation, then I got my uniform, then at the end of orientation they’re like, ‘You have to shave your beard,’” Wright said. “Then I told them 'I can’t shave it because for my religion.' Then the lady was like ‘Oh it’s alright, you don’t have to, you’ll be fine.”
Then Tuesday, his first day on the job, Wright said two restaurant managers turned him away from work.
“I told [my manager,] I was like I can’t shave it for my religion,” Wright said. “Then he said, ‘well then you can’t work here if you don’t shave your beard.’ Then I said, ‘well can I get,’ [making beard gesture] and I didn’t even say a beard net, he said, ‘No. We don’t provide beard nets here.’”
Wright and his mother Mayra Cabrera agreed with company health codes, but believed a beard net is an adequate accommodation. Cabrera believed this McDonald’s gave her son an ultimatum.
“Before I could even finish anything, [the McDonald’s manager] says, ‘Ma’am, I’m telling you right now, no McDonald’s in Grand Rapids is going to provide a beard net, we just don’t do it,’” Cabrera said. “And I said to him, ‘So he’s fired?’ And he said, ‘Oh no, he’s not fired, if he shaves his beard, he can come back to work.’”
Yet apparently, company policy reflects religious accommodation. The McDonald’s franchisee, Wiseman LLC, opted to have its spokesperson Ginny Seyferth release this statement to FOX 17:
“After he was hired, our employee shared with us that he wishes to grow a beard in conjunction with his religious beliefs. Pursuant to our policy, we are happy to accommodate his request by allowing him to wear a beard guard, which we will provide. We have reached out to him to explain this and look forward to his continued employment with our company.”
Also over the phone, Seyferth told FOX 17 that they may require Wright to sign a document stating he is Muslim.
As for Wright, he said he will apply for future jobs with a new outlook.
“I look at the employees there, see if they have beards first, and if not, then I’d ask, ‘do you guys provide beard nets, or would I have to shave my beard?’” said Wright.
In response to this statement, Cabrera told FOX 17 that McDonald’s management called her son in class Friday, and then he asked to speak with them after school. However, she and Wright said he is no longer interested in working at this McDonald’s.
As for this case, this is not the first incident of its kind at a McDonald’s. In 2013, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed a lawsuit in the Eastern District Court of California on behalf on a Muslim employee. When the restaurant refused to accommodate the employee’s religious belief to wear a beard a work, the employee was “constructively discharged.”
Among other things, McDonald’s paid the employee $50,000 in settlement.