Madison woman files complaint against local KFC franchise owner after she was fired for not wearing company hat over hijab
MADISON, Wis. — A Madison woman is facing a legal battle with a KFC franchise owner, Mitra QSR, after she said she was fired from her job for not wearing a company-provided hat over her hijab.
Fanta Conde, 21, is a practicing Muslim who says her religion “means everything to me.” Conde started working at the KFC on Cottage Grove Road in Madison on November 30, 2019. Conde didn’t begin wearing a hijab to work until February 21 of this year.
“I just went through a time in my life where I wanted to become more religious and I wanted to start wearing my hijab every day everywhere,” Conde said. “I didn’t think it would be an issue for an employer.”
The KFC employee handbook, which Conde signed, states that all employees must abide by the uniform requirements. Mitra QSR’s position statement said, “A reasonable accommodation was made for Ms. Conde to freely wear her hijab covering her uniform shirt.”
Mitra QSR’s position statement also said that Conde’s decision to start wearing a hijab at work “was fully accepted”, but the KFC brand requires that a company hat must be worn as part of the uniform.
“Due to food safety standards held by the KFC brand as well as the State of Wisconsin, not wearing a hat or cap would be a direct violation of our Food Safety Standard requirements and would cause the restaurant to fail a standards audit; therefore making the accommodation; Ms. Conde never formally requested; unreasonable,” the statement said.
The position statement also said that when Conde was approached about wearing the cap, “she became hostile” and told managers “she was going to get them fired.”
Conde said, “It was very hard for me to feel ganged up on by the management. I was crying but I wouldn’t say I was hostile. I was very upset.”
Conde said she came to work wearing a hairnet under her hijab to try and satisfy her manager’s concerns, but her managers did not accept this is a proper hair covering. Conde said she did not want to wear the hat over her hijab because it didn’t fit and she didn’t want to conceal her religious expression.
According to the Wisconsin Restaurant Association Executive Vice President Susan Quam, the rules requiring hair coverings are broad. Quam said a hijab would meet the requirements for a proper hair covering and a restaurant would not fail a standard audit if one of its employees wore a hijab in lieu of a cap.
“We have answered that question many times over the years,” Quam said. “It’s a performance-based food code, not prescriptive as to how you do it. It’s prescriptive as to saying you shall do it. How you do it is up to you.”
According to Conde’s attorney, Paul Schinner with Cross Law Firm, Conde was written up for not wearing the company hat over her hijab on February 25, March 2 and then was fired on March 5. Schinner also wrote in a position statement, “She requested one of the modifications to workplace policies or practices expressly referenced in the EEOC’s webpage Religious Discrimination listing of common religious accommodations.”
Schinner said on February 17, when Ms. Conde first arrived at work with the hijab and did not wear a hat, there was no issue. However, on February 19, the Assistant Store Manager “ordered Ms. Conde to wear her hat over her hijab and ‘keep it covered.'” On February 21, Schinner said the store manager told Conde, “I’m not going to fail a health inspection because of you wearing your little scarf thing.”
Two days later, Conde filed her first Equal Rights Division claim with the Department of Workforce Development citing discrimination and retaliation with refusal to accommodate.
Schinner said Mitra QSR’s reasoning for firing Conde based off failing a food safety standards rule is not likely to hold up in court.
“It painted them into a legal corner. It was not a good response to the lawsuit,” Schinner said. “I don’t like to call any case a slam-dunk case but I think this one is pretty close to it.”
The DWD’s Equal Rights Division found there’s enough evidence to move Conde’s case forward.
“There is probable cause to believe that [Mitra QSR] may have violated the [Wisconsin Fair Employment Law] with regard to failing to accommodate a religious practice and discharging [Conde] due to creed, opposition to discrimination, and prior complaints. [Mitra QSR] fails to point to any federal, state, or local obligations which a properly wrapped hijab with a hairnet would not satisfy.”
Conde said she hopes that sharing her story will inspire others who may be experiencing religious discrimination at work to come forward and stand up for workplace rights.
Conde’s case will be certified for a formal hearing where a judge will make a ruling based on the evidence presented. If Conde wins her case, she would be entitled to a make whole remedy where she would receive full back pay and would be entitled to get her job back if she chooses.
Mitra QSR is a Texas-based franchise owner-operator of 200 KFC, Taco Bell and Long John Silver’s restaurants in 15 states.
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