The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is suing a Long Island-based customer service company, alleging that it coerced employees to participate in a "religious" system known as "Onionhead" or "Harnessing Happiness," and fired or disciplined those who refused.
The complaint against United Health Programs of America, Inc. and its parent company, Cost Containment Group, Inc., says the company violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which protects against religious discrimination.
The commission said in a statement that employees were coerced over the past six years by Cost Containment to participate in religious activities including group prayer, candle burning, discussing spiritual texts and telling fellow staffers, "I love you."
Workers were also allegedly told to wear "Onionhead" buttons and use only dim lights in the office -- none of which were related to their positions at the company. They said if they refused, they were terminated.
"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," Sunu P. Chandy, a senior Equal Employment Opportunity Commission trial attorney said in the statement.
The complaint says that a staff member known in court documents only as "Denali" was in charge of Onionhead practices at the company. Denali reportedly retaliated against Elizabeth Ontaneda, Francine Pennisi and Faith Pabon -- three employees who expressed qualms about some of the religious rites.
Pennisi claimed to have been moved out of her office after voicing that she was Catholic and not interested in the spiritual teachings; she was purportedly replaced by a large Buddha statue.
All three women claim to have been demoted and later terminated, according to the New York Daily News.
David Sutton, an attorney representing Cost Containment Group, told TheBlaze Friday that the allegations are "completely false," saying that one of the women waging the claims willingly came back to work for the company on two separate occasions.
"The EEOC complaint is completely devoid of merit and we expect that it will be summarily dismissed," he said in an email. "A detailed explanation of the facts will be provided to you on Monday."
He also released the following statement:
An employee named Denali Jordan also denied these allegations in an interview with the New York Daily News, telling the outlet that Onionhead isn't a religious practice.
A website for the Harnessing Happiness Foundation says that it is "a 501(c)(3) nonprofit dedicated to teaching problem solving skills, conflict resolution and appropriate behavior through emotional awareness."
Here's how the website describes Onionhead, who appears to be a mascot of sorts:
It is not what is Onionhead - it is who is Onionhead? Onionhead is this incredibly pure, wise and adorable character who teaches us how to name it - claim it - tame it - aim it. Onion spelled backwards is ‘no-i-no’. He wants everyone to know how they feel and then know what to do with those feelings. He helps us direct our emotions in a truthful and compassionate way. Which in turn assists us to communicate more appropriately and peacefully. In turn, we then approach life from a place of our wellness rather than a place of our wounds.
His motto is: peel it - feel it - heal it
A contact on the foundation's website listed one of its locations as Syosset, New York, which is the same hamlet where Cost Containment Group is based. A call placed to the organization to learn more about its theoretical beliefs was not immediately returned.
The employees are seeking back pay with interest and unspecified damages in addition to stopping the company from taking these alleged actions, Reuters reported.