June 2018 Church & State Magazine - June 2018

New York Workers Don’t Have To Follow ‘Onionhead’ Religion

  Rokia Hassanein

Ten former employees of United Health Programs of America won a $5.1 million judgment in federal court after being coerced to follow their boss’s unconventional reli­gi­ous beliefs.

“I’m ecstatic. Justice was served,” Francine Pennisi, one of the ex-employees, told the New York Daily News. Pennisi and others, backed by the U.S. Equal Employment Oppor­tunity Commission, sued United Health and its parent company, Cost Containment Group, in 2014.

A jury in Brooklyn ruled in favor of the former em­ployees in late April.

The religious coercion that workers had to endure in­cluded following “spiritual cleansing rituals” and seminars about a cartoon character named Onionhead. The Onion­head figure was created by a woman identified as the aunt of the CEO of Cost Containment Group. She reportedly imple­mented the rituals and even had a hand in hiring and firing decisions. The Onionhead character was reportedly used to symbolize layers of emotions that people experience. 

The former employees of the company, which is based in Syosset, N.Y., said they had to wear Onionhead pins, share personal problems, “thank God” for their jobs, burn candles to keep demons out of the office and discuss spiritual texts, among other things.

“While religious or spiritual practices may indeed pro­vide comfort and community to many people, it is crit­ical to be aware that federal law prohibits employers from coercing employees to take part in them,” an EEOC senior trial attorney said in a press release when the case was filed.

(EEOC v. United Health Programs of American Inc. and Cost Containment Group Inc.)

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