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Native man sues Safeway over hair ultimatum

Posted: Friday, March 17, 2006

 

  Frank Miller shows his long hair this week in Kenai. Miller, a member of the Kenaitze Tribe, says he was fired from Safeway after refusing to cut his hair. Photo by Patrice Kohl

Frank Miller shows his long hair this week in Kenai. Miller, a member of the Kenaitze Tribe, says he was fired from Safeway after refusing to cut his hair.

Photo by Patrice Kohl

A Kenaitze Tribe member who was fired from a job at Safeway for not cutting his hair has filed a lawsuit alleging the supermarket wrongfully terminated him.

Frank Miller was working at Oaken Keg in Soldotna, a liquor store owned by Carrs, when Carrs was bought out by Safeway in 1999. He was fired by Safeway about two and a half years later when he refused to cut his hair.

According to Safeway’s dress code, male employees are required to keep their hair trimmed above the collar line and must keep it from hanging in front of their eyes. In addition, it requires them to trim sideburns above earlobes and away from the face, trim mustaches above the corners of the mouth and keep beards cleanly shaved.

Unlike a uniform, these appearance requirements cannot be removed and follow Safeway employees into their daily lives, said John Havelock, Miller’s attorney.

“You look like a Safeway zombie when you’re off of work too,” he said.

Miller is a cleanly shaven Athabascan American Indian and was hired to work at the Oaken Keg in 1998. Like Safeway, Carrs’ dress code prohibited male employees from growing their hair past the collar line. But the Carrs store manager who hired Miller told him he did not have to cut his hair as long as he kept it tied back.

In 2001 Miller learned the Oaken Keg would be closed, but was informed that all of the liquor store’s employees would be transferred to jobs at Safeway-owned stores in Kenai or Soldotna.

However, Joe Price, Miller’s supervisor, told him that he would not be transferred unless he cut his hair. Miller refused and was fired.

“It just came down to cut your hair or you’re not getting transferred,” Miller said. “I couldn’t understand why I could work for Safeway for two and a half years (without any complaints) and all of a sudden it was a problem.”

Four months after he was terminated, Miller filed a complaint alleging Safeway had discriminated against him based on his race, sex and religion.

“I’ve always had my hair long because I’m Native, it’s part of my heritage,” he said.

By 2004 the case climbed to the Alaska Superior Court in Anchorage, where a lower court decision that found Miller had failed to show he was discriminated against was affirmed.

The court said Miller did not show he had been treated less favorably than non-Native male employees with long hair.

The court, however, left the door open for Miller to amend his complaint and return to a trial court claiming Safeway had violated his employment contract.

Until Safeway had decided to close the Oaken Keg in Soldotna, they had exempted Miller from their hair-length policy for more than two and a half years. But when the Oaken Keg was scheduled to close, Safeway told him he would be fired based on his hair length without explaining why the exemption had been dropped.

Miller said he keeps his hair neatly trimmed, visiting a barber one or two times a month.

“It’s never down over my ears or anything,” he said. “I wash it and comb it every day.”

Miller said that Price had been his supervisor for more than two years, was pleased with his performance and that Price was just passing the ultimatum down from his own superiors.

“He knew I was a good worker and did my job,” he said. “He just got the word from higher up ... I don’t know from how high up the ladder it came.”

Last week, attorneys for Safeway and Miller argued in a Kenai Superior Courtroom before Judge Charles Huguelet, each claiming that a summery judgment should be made in favor of their client.

Huguelet has not yet come to a decision and the case could still go to trial as early as May.

The Clarion contacted Safeway’s attorney, but was informed that she could not speak on the record without prior approval from her client and that Safeway representatives were unavailable for comment on Wednesday.



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