Alaska Airlines Flight Attendant Alleges That Company’s Dress Code Discriminates Against Nonbinary Employees

Distinctive navy-colored slacks, skirts, jackets and cardigans may help to shape the brand identity of Alaska Airlines flight crew — but at least one company employee is now alleging that these uniforms discriminate against nonbinary workers, forcing them to adhere to gender standards that they may not be comfortable with and setting them up to be misgendered by passengers and even their own co-workers.

Amir Vera, Joe Sutton and Alta Spells of CNN have reported that “an Alaska Airlines employee is alleging the airline’s uniform policy discriminates against employees whose gender does not fall within the policy’s binary ‘male’ and ‘female’ dress and grooming rules.”

According to a statement by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Seattle-based flight attendant Justin Wetherell works as both a member of the flight crew as well as an instructor for Alaska Airlines. Wetherell says that when working as an instructor for the company, they aren’t forced into Alaska Airlines’ ‘male’ or ‘female’ uniform policies because neither of those descriptors fit their nonbinary identity.

“But when I work as a flight attendant, I am forced into one of two standards, often for up to four days at a time,” Wetherell said. “I am willing to follow all of the elements of the uniform policy for professional attire, as I do when I work as an instructor, but I don’t want to be forced into a binary uniform that excludes me and leads to me being misgendered at work.”

The ACLU adds that Wetherell’s complaint goes far beyond simple clothing, saying, “The uniform policy comprehensively regulates every aspect of a flight attendant’s appearance as part of either the ‘male’ or ‘female’ uniform, including which pants and cardigans employees may wear, whether employees must wear their hair up or down, how many earrings employees are allowed to wear, whether employees may wear makeup or just concealer, and whether employees may roll up their sleeves.” 

ACLU says that this type of uniform policy is a direct violation of state law because the Washington Law Against Discrimination is all-encompassing and prohibits discrimination based on “sex” or “gender identity, self-image, appearance, behavior or expression.”

In an interview with CNN, Joshua Block, senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s LGBTQ & HIV Project, said, “By forcing our client and countless other employees to adhere to Alaska Airlines’ rigid gender categories, the uniform policy demeans employees who do not conform to gender stereotypes and interferes with their ability to do their jobs.”

Consequences for Alaska Airlines employees not following the company’s dress code can be stiff and include removal without pay and eventual termination for employees who fail its standards for ‘male’ and ‘female’ dress and grooming.

Wetherell brought up the issue with airline management earlier this year, but their request for a change in dress code policy was denied, with the airline saying, “your requests are inconsistent with this business purpose.”

When news of the new complaint broke on June 4, the company issued a new statement saying: “Alaska Airlines has been a longtime supporter of the LGBTQ+ community. We have been a leader in the industry when it comes to inclusivity in our uniform and grooming standards, which have been informed by our employees and developed in accordance with federal and state laws. We are committed to making Alaska a place where everyone feels respected and belongs and proudly celebrate the diversity of our employees this Pride month and all year long.”

The company then went on to add that it had created “several new guidelines” recently to give flight crew “more inclusive uniform options” and that new, gender-neutral hair and grooming policies were currently in development.

Although not fully satisfied with the resolution, Wetherell told CNN the company’s efforts were a good first step in the right direction.

“I truly hope this starts a larger conversation regarding gender identity, gender expression and antiquated stereotypes,” they said.

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