Recently a woman filed a suit against her former employer, Bath & Body Works, alleging that she was fired due to religious discrimination. So far, neither Bath & Body Works nor the manager who fired her have gone on record with a public response, so I will just briefly explain what the plaintiff claims, keeping in mind that this is just one side of the story.
Gina Uberti says she was fired last November after speaking with her manager about a vacation she took. Uberti says that for the past six years, she has taken a week off every year to celebrate Samhain in Salem, Massachusetts, and her absence in 2008 was both planned and approved by a previous manager nearly a year in advance. From what I can gather, the new manager never told her she could not take the time off, but rebuked her for taking the time off once she was back, on November 4. Apparently the week she had taken off work was the week of the rolling-out of an important company campaign, and the manager was frustrated that Uberti could not be reached on the phone during this time. She wanted to know what was so important that Uberti had put the planned time off higher on her list of priorities than this company project. Uberti told her that it was a religious observance, which caused the manager to ask what holiday she could be celebrating at the end of October/beginning of November. Uberti told the manager she was Wiccan and explained the significance of Samhain as the new year for Wiccans. From there, things went further south, with the manager allegedly calling her religious beliefs “ridiculous” and allegedly calling Uberti herself a “devil-worshipper” and threatening her employment. Uberti was fired two weeks after that conversation.
Now, so far this whole interaction, as related by Uberti, raises many questions, which I’ll take one at a time. Are employees of major corporations so beholden to their jobs and co-workers that they must even sacrifice their personal vacations for them, vacations that were planned far in advance? (This question extends to any vacations, not just religious ones, as this was the manager’s complaint before she knew about the religious aspect of the trip.) Aren’t people allowed to simply unplug anymore without fear of losing their jobs? Can a regional manager really go so batty because one of her sales managers is unreachable for one measly week? And yes, one can argue that this was an important week for the company and the “good employee” would have changed her personal plans, but in some high-responsibility jobs there is never a good time for you to be absent. People today wishing to remain sane and balanced must carve out time for themselves. At times we need to put our foot down, say “enough,” and take some personal time. It’s a shame that this manager pressed the employee to explain herself simply for taking the paid vacation that was her due for working all year.
Still, if this really was such a huge project, it’s possible that Uberti failed to meet her employment objectives or job responsibilities by not working or being in contact during that important week. If that were the case though, I think the manager should have told her ahead of time that she would be fired for taking the time off because the company needed her to work at that time, and leave it at that. Just like folks who are required to work on Thanksgiving or Christmas, who would rather be at home with their families but who need the job so much they do it anyway, it could have been Uberti’s sole decision. And it wouldn’t have led to prying questions about what she was doing with her time off.
The next question, which some people have been discussing over at the Wild Hunt, is whether Uberti should have even told the manager the reason for her absence or vacation. In an ideal utopia, of course, the manager has no right to know what the employee is doing with her approved time off, but unfortunately that’s not the way large businesses work. The manager obviously felt she had a right to know why the employee did not reschedule the vacation in light of the project she was needed for, and demanded answers. So was Uberti right to bring religion into it?
Well, why not? Just because some people are prejudiced does not mean that Pagans and Wiccans need to live like lepers or like gays in the military – “don’t ask, don’t tell.” It doesn’t sound like Uberti was proselytizing or being outspoken about her religious beliefs, just answering a very specific question: why this specific week? She had a valid answer and in a truly non-judgmental world that adheres to non-discrimination against “race, color, religion, gender, gender identity, national origin, citizenship, age, disability, sexual orientation or marital status” as Bath & Body Works aspires to do, it wouldn’t have mattered. But for this particular manager, it apparently mattered – a great deal. Unfortunately companies can write lovely non-discrimination policies, but it is often left to small-minded people to enforce them, or not. Which is why the company’s response to this should be interesting.
Keep in mind that Uberti had worked for Bath & Body works for eight years, had been promoted, had gotten good reviews – it sounds like she was dedicated to this company, in it for the long haul. Keep in mind as well that this problem only occurred when a new manager stepped in; her previous managers had allowed the trips for six years running with no written complaints. It does seem like a case of religious discrimination, and if the courts agree with Uberti, I hope that she will receive full justice and an apology from her former employer. We’ll just have to follow this case, wait and see. After all, we still only know one side of the story.
But let’s turn the questions back to you. First off, have you ever been reprimanded for simply taking time off? (I honestly believe everyone has – I was scoffed at once during high school for taking unpaid time off from my restaurant job because I had pneumonia and my doctor told me to rest at home for ten days – the manager arrogantly told me he’d been back to work after two days when he’d had it. Yeah, whatever.) Have you ever been pressured to reschedule a vacation because of work duties, and if so, did you? Have you ever been discriminated against at work for your religion or for anything else? If so, what did you do about it? If not, imagine yourself in Gina Uberti’s place – would you have played the Wicca card, or made up an excuse about a dying grandmother to explain your absence? Would you have sued your employer after being fired this way?
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