The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has filed a complaint on behalf of three former employees of United Health Programs of America Inc., who claim they were fired for refusing to take part in religious practices at work, including holding hands in group prayer and saying “I love you” to their bosses and colleagues. Others felt pressure to leave voluntarily, according to the complaint filed in the Eastern District Wednesday.
The complaint claims that employees of United Health have been forced since 2007 to participate in a belief system called “Onionhead.” Employees were required to wear Onionhead pins, dim the lights to maintain a pious atmosphere and meet monthly with the aunt of the company’s owner to discuss literature about “divine plans.” It is unclear whether the aunt was an employee, said EEOC senior trial attorney Sunu Chandy.
“Defendants compelled employees to take part in Onionhead-related religious activities on a routine basis to maintain their employment,” the complaint states. The employees “made known their opposition … and faced termination for this reason.”
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits religion-based discrimination, the EEOC wrote in EEOC v. United Health Programs of America, Inc. and Cost Containment Group, Inc. 14cv3673.
United Health, based in Syosset, provides customer service on behalf of insurance providers. The EEOC conducted an investigation earlier this year after receiving a complaint by former employees and the named plaintiffs, Chandy said. United Health had the opportunity to resolve any discrimination issues, Chandy said, adding that settlement attempts were unsuccessful.
Defendants are seeking back pay and compensation. “The two things that were compelling about this case were the level of religious activities and severity of punishment for people who refused to participate,” said Chandy, who is joined by Robert Rose, regional attorney of EEOC’s New York office.
United Health was advised during the investigation by Garden City attorney David Sutton, who said the EEOC complaint “is completely devoid of merit, and we expect that it will be summarily dismissed.”