RENO, NEV. — For almost two decades, Darlene Jespersen's job was to serve drinks at Harrah's, one of the biggest gambling establishments in Reno.
But last August, she was fired - for refusing to wear makeup. Earlier this month, Ms. Jespersen filed suit against her former employee in US district court, saying that being forced to wear mascara, lipstick, blush, and face powder to keep her job was not only humiliating but also gender discrimination.
"I was good enough to do my job for 18 years," says the bartender. "Suddenly, I wasn't good enough to do my job because I refused to look like a clown."
Her case is setting up the latest test of how far companies can go in mandating what employees should look like on the job. From men suing for the right to sport goatees, to airline stewardesses tired of company-mandated dieting, to TV news anchors being replaced because of encroaching wrinkles, the past quarter century has been filled with lawsuits by employees demanding their right to look - and be - who they are.
In a day of relaxed dress codes, these strictures strike many as outmoded and - in Jespersen's case - sexist. In fact, women's and workers' groups in Nevada have staged protests in solidarity with her.
But in court, particularly when it comes to the entertainment industry, the reality is appearances do matter. The fact is, courts generally find that "employers have a right to run their business and hold men and women to societal norms in terms of dress and grooming standards," says Corbett Anderson, a staff attorney at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in Washington.
That is especially true if appearance is part of the job, says Mark Dichter, chairman of the American Bar Association's Labor and Employment Law Section. For example, "most people would be shocked if they saw a TV anchor on TV without makeup on.... But if you're working at a computer terminal without makeup, it's hard for an employer to justify, because appearance is not an issue."
From shoes to makeup, casinos traditionally have mandated different dress codes for men and women. Sit at a slot machine or roulette table, and a female server in a uniform that includes a short skirt, high heels, and makeup will stop to offer a drink. The few male servers must wear long pants and look clean.
"This is nothing new to us," says Regina Hearrell, a female bartender at Harrah's who is happy with the requirement.
"This has been going on forever," agrees Jespersen. Harrah's offered her her job back, sans makeup, but she says she won't go back unless the casino drops its policy. "You take it until it pushes that button. And that's what this did with me."
The policy arrived in Reno in the spring of 2000, days after a local group publicly protested high-heel requirements for cocktail servers.
Donna Cartinella, a former Harrah's cocktail waitress, says foot problems forced her to leave her job of 23 years, but the "personal best" policy also played a role. She says Harrah's went too far when it asked women to sign a paper promising they would arrive at work wearing the four makeup elements required. "You wondered what would happen to you if you didn't sign," she says.
All, except Jespersen, signed. She was fired.
Harrah's declines to comment on the lawsuit. It plans to implement the policy in other departments.
The gambling industry is hardly known for its politically correct attitude toward women. From showgirls to cocktail waitresses, makeup and revealing outfits are part of the job. In some cases, that's part of providing entertainment, says Ferenc Szony, president of the Sand's Regency Casino Hotel in Reno. "It's easy for some to say that it's silly to make someone who serves a drink wear some form of makeup," Mr. Szony says. "In reality, that role is more than just someone serving a drink."
That defense might help Harrah's win in court, says Cathy Ruckelshaus, litigation director of the National Employment Law Project. "Harrah's has to show that [makeup] is part of the entertainment, that it's a legitimate aspect," she says.
While cases involving disputes over high heels or makeup are not uncommon in the entertainment industry, she says the plaintiff must show that the dress code has inflicted physical harm to win their case.
But protesters argue that the casinos' policies are harmful to women. "We're dealing with an attitude that's been allowed to grow and prosper over a number of years," says Tom Stoneburner, head of the Alliance for Workers' Rights, who has led protests outside Harrah's Nevada properties. "I don't know of a person who has ever said, 'Don't give me that drink unless you're wearing red lipstick.' "
Szony says the makeup policies are no different than what is asked of, say, Disney employees. But some point out that Harrah's doesn't ask male bartenders to wear makeup. "I suppose it would be different if it wasn't gender-specific," says Fred Adams, a gambling analyst.
Some see similarities between Harrah's dress code and airline policies that imposed weight standards on stewardesses in the '70s and '80s. In 1982, a court ruled against Continental Airlines for firing a stewardess when her weight exceeded what Continental mandated for its "Continental Girls." A lawsuit against United Airlines followed, and airlines have since relaxed weight and height standards.
But, Mr. Dichter notes, in that case, the standards affected a large group of women who had little control over how tall they were or how much they weighed.
Nonetheless, he adds, "courts tend to be more sympathetic to a longtime employee. What is surprising [in Jespersen's case] is why it became an issue after 20 years."
Staff writer Samar Farah contributed to this report.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor