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Tattoos TABOO in the Workplace

(Orlando Sentinel, The (FL) (KRT) - Russell Parrish would like a better job. He manages his father-in-law's small restaurant, but other prospective employers won't even give him applications, let alone interviews. By his count, he's been turned down for more than two dozen jobs in the last couple of months, and he's pretty sure he knows why.

"It comes down to skin color," said Parrish, 29, who has dozens of tattoos that cover his arms, hands, torso and neck. "I want a career; I want same the shot as everybody else."

Parrish, who lives with his wife, Victoria, in Lake Wales, feels strongly enough about his plight and that of other heavily tattooed people that he has started an advocacy group to fight for their employment rights.

"I'm not doing this for anybody but the people who want careers and are unable to get them," he said.

He reports receiving literally hundreds of supporting calls from the tattoo community, though he acknowledges having little luck in getting legislators or government officials to listen to his complaints of discrimination.

His complaints have merit on one level, employment lawyers agree. There is no doubt people with visible tattoos suffer workplace discrimination, "but it's legal discrimination," said Gary Wilson, a Winter Park employment lawyer.

Among the categories covered under federal and state discrimination laws are minorities, women, people over 40 and those with certain disabilities, Wilson explained, but not those who choose to have body art permanently inked on their skin.

The one exception would be a tattoo placed for religious reasons, but that claim seldom gets very far.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission takes claims of religious discrimination seriously, and it recognizes that some religions and sects require tattoos for their adherents, said EEOC spokesman James Ryan. But claimants must have a sincerely held religious belief, "and what is a 'sincerely held religious belief' comes under dispute," he said.

Tattoos, far more likely to be a form of self-expression than an aspect of religious ritual, are more common than ever in the U.S. Thirty-six percent of those ages 18 to 25, and 40 percent of those ages 26 to 40, have at least one tattoo, according to a fall 2006 survey by the Pew Research Center.

But tattoos don't become an employment issue unless they are visible, and many workers with body art on their torsos or upper arms have no trouble keeping their tattoos to themselves. A more detailed, 2004 survey by Northwestern University's Department of Dermatology reported that more than half of those with tattoos had at least one that was in an exposed area such as an arm, ankle or neck, but even most exposed tattoos can be covered with long pants, long-sleeved shirts and other work-appropriate clothing.

Tattoo policies

And that's what usually happens. Walt Disney World, SeaWorld Orlando and Wal-Mart Stores Inc., for example, all have written policies that apply to "visible" tattoos, and even those are not necessarily ruled out.

Disney says employees can't use bandages to cover such tattoos, but they can use opaque makeup. SeaWorld specifies "non-conservative, large or offensive tattoos," and adds that tattoos will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Wal-Mart says tattoos "that are offensive or distractive are to be covered by clothing or other means."

Gatorland, where Russell Parrish once worked as an alligator wrestler, will hire qualified employees with visible tattoos, said the park's human resource director, Bonnie Van Dyke. But any and all tattoos must be covered up when working with the public, she said, explaining, "We don't want to ever insult a guest."

For Parrish, who worked at Gatorland for three months in 2003, that meant donning a heavy scarf, gloves "and a double uniform top with a shirt underneath so nothing showed" when he wrestled gators.

For Clint Womack, a 33-year-old respiratory therapist at Winter Park Memorial Hospital, it simply means wearing long sleeves and long pants at work. Heavily tattooed since his days in the Navy, Womack said his body art has caused few problems for his career.

He acknowledged being more vigilant about keeping his arms covered when he first started working at the hospital four years ago. "But once you prove your capabilities, it doesn't become an issue. I run into some people at work who are not necessarily approving, but they're in no position to do anything."

Womack, like most people with multiple tattoos, realizes there's a line that is dangerous to cross. While his arms, legs and much of his torso are covered with tattoos, his hands, neck and face are clear. "Tattoos are a choice you make, and you have to live with your choices."

Discreetly placed

At Devotion Tattoo in Orlando, a police officer recently came in with his short-sleeved uniform top to make sure the tattoo he received would not extend below his clothing, reported store manager Chava Goldman. The shop on Mills Avenue tattoos a lot of professionals, she said, who work with the shop's artists to make sure their body art can be hidden on the job.

Shaun Blayer, who owns Defiant Ink tattoo shops in Sebring and Lake Wales, said many of his customers who want large tattoos wind up downsizing their concept so the tattoos don't show in work clothing. If anyone wants a tattoo on the wrists, hands or face, "we give them a 15-minute lecture on how it will be there the rest of their life."

Most people don't need the lecture. They already know a tattoo that can't be easily covered will drastically cut down on their job options.

And they're right. From an employer's view, "some customers may be understanding, but a lot won't," said Peter Ronza, a compensation and benefits manager at a Midwestern university and a spokesman for the Society for Human Resource Management.

Employers "can't afford to lose business because a guy has something [tattooed] crawling up his neck," Ronza said. "Perception is reality, and people make decisions based on image."

But as trends come and go, perceptions change, Ronza said, citing the increasing number -- and acceptance -- of high-powered corporate men with pierced ears. If more people wear tattoos, particularly people who eventually move into positions of responsibility, tattoos will be more accepted.

Eric Storch, a University of Florida clinical psychologist who co-authored a 2003 study of tattooed college students, agrees. But just because some tattoos may be accepted in the workplace doesn't mean all will be. "There's a difference between a dainty butterfly and a cross with skulls," Storch said. "People make a choice about how they present themselves."

Tattoos already are increasingly accepted in certain fields, such as entertainment, high-tech and some niche retail areas. The Web site lists scores of "mod-friendly" employers in a variety of fields that hire people with visible tattoos and piercings.

One surprise mod-friendly listing is Bank of America. A spokesman for the company verified its policy: "A tattoo is not a factor in hiring a skilled professional who is the right person for the job."

Which is pretty much what Russell Parrish is asking for. He sees no reason why his tattoos -- of animals, of skulls, of horror movie heroes, even the spider on his throat -- should disqualify him from any job he is otherwise qualified for.

"I won't stop being tattooed because people don't like it. All my tattoos have meaning," said Parrish, explaining that the spider and web, for example, refers to Sir Walter Scott's famous quote, "Oh what a tangled web we weave . . . ," which reminds him never to lie.

One of his favorite TV shows, Miami Ink, chronicles the lives of tattoo artists and the clients they deal with. But, says Parrish, "it shows all the upside and not the downside -- what you have to go through afterwards."

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