Alaska Airlines has agreed to drop the company’s traditional male and female uniform rules after the Washington state attorney general’s office agreed to a consent decree against Alaska Airlines.
In December 2020, Justin Wetherell, a non-binary flight attendant and flight attendant instructor who has been with Alaska Airlines airline since 2015, filed a complaint against the airline’s dress code.
The allegations stated: “Complainant alleges that Respondent discriminated against them by implementing a uniform policy that divides the uniforms into ‘male’ and ‘female’ styles and by refusing to make an exception to this binary uniform policy for Complainant based on their gender identity and gender expression.”
In June 2021, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), representing Wetherell, urged Alaska Airlines to take prompt corrective action to bring its policy into compliance with the Washington Law Against Discrimination (“WLAD”) and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Gendered uniform rules exacerbated depression
According to the ACLU, the airline’s uniform policy demeaned employees who do not conform to gender stereotypes.
In Wetherell’s case, the ACLU said: “When Justin works a shift as a flight attendant and must adhere to the uniform policy, Justin faces constant misgendering. They feel their gender identity and expression aren’t valued or accepted, and as a result feel forced to present as “male” at work. The struggle Justin feels to be accepted while working as a flight attendant has exacerbated their anxiety, insomnia, and depression.”
Flexible uniforms not enough
In March 2022, Alaska Airlines updated its uniform guidelines to provide more freedom and flexibility in individual and gender expression.
Working with Seattle-based designer Luly Yang, the airline designed new, gender-neutral uniform pieces for its frontline employees, including flight attendants, customer service agents, and uniformed lounge employees.
In September 2022, however, the Washington Human Rights Commission issued a reasonable cause of finding against Alaska Airlines over the company’s enforcement of a uniform policy.
According to the commission, Alaska Airlines had forced employees, including Wetherell, who identify as neither male nor female to fit into a “binary uniform system,” likely violating a Washington state law that prohibits discrimination based on gender identity, appearance, behavior or expression.
On April 27, 2023, the ACLU and the Washington State Attorney General’s Office secured a “groundbreaking” consent decree against Alaska Airlines, requiring Alaska Airlines to remove all gendered restrictions from its uniform policy for flight attendants and to require additional training on gender identity and gender expression.
“I am incredibly relieved and happy to put this process behind me,” Wetherell said of the years-long lawsuit in an ACLU statement.
Wetherell added: “This took far more time than I expected and had a severe negative impact on my mental and emotional health. However, I would do it again in a heartbeat — I truly believe the time is always right to do what is right. This is the right thing for me, for Alaska Airlines, and for many other nonbinary, transgender, and gender non-conforming people. This victory sets the groundwork for other similarly affected individuals to have an easier time fixing discriminatory policies.”