EEOC Investigates Beauty Bias at Coffee Chain

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has begun investigating beauty bias at a chain of Boston coffee shops, indicating a possible growing expansion of the protections of the federal antidiscrimination laws. The investigations were reported by the Boston Globe last month, which had been alerted by the owner of the Marylou’s chain of coffee shops of the EEOC’s interviewing of its former and current employees.
According to the Boston Globe, the EEOC had not received any complaints before its investigation but had initiated it on its own. The Marylou’s chain of coffee shops is known throughout the Boston area for commercials featuring young women in pink and black shorts. The investigation supposedly was triggered by the commercials and by the fact that servers at the restaurant were also often young women in revealing clothing. While the EEOC has not commented on the issue, Marylou’s claims that the agency has been interviewing applicants, workers and customers for months, in what the coffee chain characterized as a “witch hunt.”
While the EEOC has not clarified the basis of its investigation, media commentators have set forth that the agency is targeting beauty bias at the chain. If correct, then this will be the first indication of a move by the EEOC towards a more expansive view of the protections afforded under the federal antidiscrimination laws.
Discrimination based on appearance has usually been held to be unlawful only if it is connected to race, disability, national origin or sex discrimination. While discrimination based on weight, which is often correlated to perceptions of beauty, has been ruled in some circumstances to be prohibited by the Americans with Disabilities Act, even that has been controversial. Otherwise, federal laws do not prohibit discrimination based on other physical characteristics, such as perceived beauty. However some state or local laws do attempt to target the practice of discrimination based on beauty. For example, the District of Columbia forbids discrimination based on personal appearance unless it is a business necessity. Santa Cruz likewise prohibits discrimination based on physical characteristics. Michigan and San Francisco also makes illegal discrimination based on height and weight, which are often correlated with beauty. Even the Supreme Court of Montana just recently ruled that discrimination based on obesity, even if not related to a physical disease or disability under the ADA, is illegal under its state discrimination laws.
Even with these state laws, law professors and scholars have argued that this limitation of the federal anti discrimination laws leaves many problematic practices undisturbed. Professor Deborah Rhodes at Stanford Law School, for example, in her 2010 book Beauty Bias, has argued for the expansion of the antidiscrimination laws to cover discrimination based on perceived attractiveness. University of Texas Labor Economics Professor Daniel Hamermash has made similar arguments in works, encouraging the EEOC to incorporate discrimination based on beauty into the prohibitions of the ADA,
This investigation of beauty bias by the EEOC would as such indicate a new direction of the agency towards these arguments from the academy. Social science research has also provided support for this move, as dozens of studies have demonstrated the debilitating effects of perceived physical unattractiveness on the life earnings of Americans. One study, for example, found that attractive people make $250,000 more on average than less attractive people over a lifetime, a 4 percent gap in earnings overall. This move by the EEOC may at last bring an end to one of the last still acceptable forms of discrimination in our country.

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