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Sitting on a couch in her lawyer's office, Christine Leduc-McCrady describes the woman who fired her from the exclusive Boca Raton Resort & Club. "She looks a little different than me. Long blond hair, fake nails, three-tone lipstick, the perfect power suit. When she saw me with short hair, I'm sure a lot of things ran through her head, like: 'What are people going to think of this lesbian working for us?'"
Leduc-McCrady, who isn't a lesbian but does sport a military-style buzz cut, continues: "There's the whole image of a woman doing a man's job. Lifeguarding is still a really male-dominated occupation. If you want to go ahead and fill in the stereotype of a woman lifeguard, what's the closest thing we've got? Baywatch, right? What do the women on Baywatch look like? They look like Pamela Anderson. So maybe you start thinking that's what lifeguards should look like because the club members might expect that."
Finally the 25-year-old, Canadian-born Leduc-McCrady offers her opinion of local billionaire Wayne Huizenga, whose Florida Panthers Holdings, Inc. acquired the Boca hotel resort last July: "People like Wayne Huizenga are very scary people. You don't really realize what kind of power they have until someone loses a job over [his or her] appearance."
On October 12, 1997, three months after the Huizenga purchase, the resort hired Leduc-McCrady for $9 per hour to watch over swimmers on its private beach. Forty days later she was history.
Leduc-McCrady filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), a federal agency charged with safeguarding workers from discrimination on the job. As in many cases, the EEOC didn't conclude whether or not her firing was unjust. It did issue her a one-page Notice of Right to Sue, paving the way for a court fight. Leduc-McCrady says she intends to file suit later this month in federal court, seeking back wages and unspecified punitive damages.
At the time of her hiring, the complaint states, she reviewed and initialed a summary of policies and procedures. "To have Boca Quality I must smile, because I'm on stage and smiling is contagious," reads one item. Another, from a section describing the dress code, explains that "hairstyles for men and women should be moderate."
An employee photo-ID shows that Leduc-McCrady had quarter-inch-long hair on the day she started work. "No one present at the time of my hiring expressed the opinion that my hairstyle was in violation of the dress code," she claims.
They soon did. On October 30, supervisor Randall Webster told her to grow her hair. "I protested based on the fact that numerous male employees had hair as short or shorter than mine," Leduc-McCrady's EEOC complaint says. "Mr. Webster still insisted that I needed to grow it longer, and I told him I would think about it."
On November 7, beach club manager Dannielle Schumanski told Leduc-McCrady she "was taking the matter to the Human Resources Department for consideration." On November 19, another meeting with Schumanski took place. "She informed me that my hairstyle was not 'moderate' by Boca Raton standards and that different standards existed for men's and women's haircuts," Leduc-McCrady claims. "I stated that such a policy was discriminatory and illegal."
The next day personnel manager Jim Infantino told her she would be fired unless she grew her hair longer. She refused, calling it gender discrimination. Then she got axed.
Leduc-McCrady insists she was considered a topnotch employee until she crossed paths with Schumanski. "She was really excellent," says Foster Harrington, another former club lifeguard. "Always on time, never late. The type of person who was real good company out there. Her problems all had to do with this retarded Boca image."
There's a good reason many lifeguards favor short hair, Leduc-McCrady points out. People who are drowning have been known to use a rescuer's long locks as a lifeline, to fatal effect. "It's an occupational hazard, or at least a hindrance," says Leduc-McCrady's lawyer, Russell Cormican.
Resort president Michael Glennie declined to discuss Leduc-McCrady's firing except to say that his former employee "was unable to meet the conditions of her 90-day probationary period." He adds: "It's a policy of ours not to discuss employee issues that we believe are private, just as we wouldn't discuss issues involving our guests. And I think that policy is even more important when one party is considering litigation."
Huizenga spokesman Stan Smith says it's patently unfair to blame his boss for the Boca imbroglio. Huizenga's connection to the squabble and to the resort's daily management is, he notes, "nonexistent." Huizenga was on vacation and unavailable for comment.
The Boca controversy resembles another hair affair involving the bald tycoon. In 1994, when Huizenga was still chairman of Blockbuster Video, four longhaired male employees were fired for refusing to visit the barber. A judge dismissed the case, and recently an appellate court upheld that decision. The matter is on final appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court.
Richard Hankins, an Atlanta lawyer who represented the resort when Leduc-McCrady first complained to the EEOC, declined to comment on how he plans to address her still-to-be-filed lawsuit. He did cite a 1975 ruling by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal, which affirmed a Georgia company's right not to hire a man with long hair. It's the same ruling noted by the judge in the Blockbuster case.
"I have no reason to believe they won't fight this, especially in light of the Blockbuster victory," says attorney Cormican, whose own hair measures 21 inches in length. "In all honesty the existing case law is in their favor. But I think these types of cases are ripe to be revisited by the courts."
Leduc-McCrady says she wouldn't go back to work in Boca even if they begged her. For the past eight months, she's been employed by the Fort Lauderdale beach patrol. "I love where I'm working now," she says. "They don't really care how you look as long as you're doing a good job."
Four weeks ago Leduc-McCrady returned from the United States Lifesaving Association National Lifeguard Competition in Chicago toting three medals. Her greatest accomplishment was placing second in the nation in the grueling ocean-rescue part of the contest.
Tracie Moll, a 12-year veteran of the beach rescue team, says her younger, rookie colleague is working out just fine. "She doesn't take any crap," says Moll. "She has a strong mind. She's aggressive, because you have to be. You can't be afraid of ocean conditions, or people either. You have to take charge, and she does." Moll notes that the beach patrol doesn't have any particular policy when it comes to hair length -- anything goes. She herself wears a crew cut.
But across the road from Fort Lauderdale beach, Florida Panthers Holdings has taken over the venerable Bahia Mar Marina and its affiliated Radisson hotel. Leduc-McCrady worries about this creeping Huizengafication. "Some people laughed and said to me, 'Why not just grow your hair?' I thought: 'You don't get it do you?' There's a really big underlying issue here. It's not the hair. It's him. Who's he to say that women need to look a certain way?