Since 2008, the Oregon Equality Act has protected employees in the state from discrimination based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. The law defines gender identity as the gender that a person believes they should be, not their biological gender. Gender identity protections apply also to transgender individuals or those who do not fit traditional gender stereotypes in their look, dress, or behavior. A recent lawsuit out of Portland raises the question of whether an employee who does not identify with either gender is protected under the Equality Act.
Jones v. Bon Appetit
Valeria Jones began working at Bon Appetit in 2013. On the employment application, Jones purposely left both the “male” and “female” boxes unchecked because Jones identifies as not belonging to either gender, or “gender neutral.” No one at Bon Appetit ever acknowledged the omission. After being hired, Jones requested that coworkers use only gender neutral pronouns, such as “they.”
Allegedly, co-workers continually referred to Jones as a female, even after Jones repeatedly asked them to stop doing so. Jones stated that co-workers said the following:
· Repeatedly called Jones “lady,” “little lady,” and “miss”;
· Said Jones “looked like a woman”; and
· Compared Jones to female celebrities.
Jones states that both manager and the company’s human resources department were aware of the problem and asked to provide training to employees regarding gender neutrality and diversity. After receiving no response, Jones allegedly cried at both home and work over the situation on a regular basis.
Ultimately, Jones quit the job and filed suit against Bon Appetit, asking for over $18,000 in lost wages and an additional $500,000 for suffering and humiliation. Bon Appetit has only made one statement regarding the lawsuit, saying they are “an equal opportunity employer that embraces diversity of all kinds.”
The lawsuit opens up a new employment law issue because, while Oregon Equality Act protects gender identity, the law does not specifically protect a lack of gender identity. Most cases that arise out of gender identity issues in the workplace involve whether an employee dresses in line with their gender or whether an employee is allowed to use a certain restroom. It has been made clear that an employee may dress, act, and use the restroom in accordance with their chosen gender, and are not required to stay true to stereotypes regarding their biologcial gender. However, this lawsuit may determine the workplace rights that gender neutral employees have in the state of Oregon.
We will keep track of the progress of the Jones v. Bon Appetit case and will update this blog accordingly. In the meantime, if you believe you have suffered any type of discrimination at work, please contact the employment attorneys at HKM for help today.