Workers who prepare specialty meals for airlines say their own dietary needs are ignored

Jun 11, 2013

Workers near Sea-Tac Airport, who prepare the meals served on many airlines, say their employer is failing to accommodate their religiously-based dietary needs. Gate Gourmet provides meals for employees who are not allowed for security reasons  to bring their own food into the facility or to eat lunch off-site.

At the heart of the case (James Kumar, Ranveer Singh, Asegedew Gefe & Abbas Kosymoo v. Gate Gourmet) now before the Washington Supreme Court is how far an employer has to go to accommodate someone's religious beliefs.

The employees at Gate Gourmet are mostly immigrants from Ethiopia, India and Pakistan. They’re Hindus, Muslims and Orthodox Christians.  Because of their religious beliefs, many don’t eat pork or beef or are strict vegetarians. And that’s where the conflict with the company comes in.

Gate Gourmet provides workers with what it calls a “healthful meal” each day. And Seth Rosenberg, the attorney for the workers who are suing, says when people complained that the meat being served in the spaghetti sauce was pork, the company did initially switch to turkey and label it as such.

“Apparently GM did—switched it back to pork without telling anybody," Rosenberg said, meaning people were unwittingly eating something they were religiously opposed to. 

And, Rosenberg says, that isn’t all. He says Gate Gourmet has continually refused to adequately label the meat served or provide vegetarian options. Even the refried beans, he says, are cooked in animal fat.

The irony, Rosenberg says, is the kind of work the Gate Gourmet employees are doing at the Sea-Tac facility.

“They’re preparing meals, specialty meals for the airlines, including kosher meals and other meals involving dietary restrictions,” Rosenberg said.

Gate Gourmet, which is based in Switzerland, says it doesn’t comment on litigation involving the company. 

In court filings the company argued it didn’t have to accommodate worker’s religiously based dietary needs, because Washington state’s anti-discrimination law does not single out religious beliefs for protection.  A lower court agreed with that argument.

Now, it’s up to the state Supreme Court  to decide.

Attorneys for the workers argue that religious protection is an implied civil right in Washington, that the state has always been in the mainstream in respecting religion and that ruling otherwise would brand the state as a fringe haven for religious intolerance.

Even if Gate Gourmet employees lose in the state Supreme Court, they still have the option of filing a civil rights case under federal law, which does specifically ban religious discrimination.