The City of Toronto is directing its contractors to reinstate any security guards who lost their jobs because they were required to shave their beards in order to wear N95 masks at work.
The directive comes after a complaint by the World Sikh Organization (WSO) that security guard contractors for the city were not accommodating employees who have facial hair for religious reasons and cannot wear N95 masks.
Security guards are required to wear N95 masks when they are working at city homeless shelters fighting COVID-19 outbreaks, according to a public health requirement.
"The City has directed these contractors to accommodate their employees who have requested religious exemptions and to reinstate any employee whose employment was terminated, immediately," the city said in a news release on Monday.
"As part of its investigation, the city will be looking at its legal options, up to and including terminating the contracts of any contractors found to be in violation of city policy or human rights legislation."
The city said it has contracts with many large security guard organizations and employees who have facial hair for religious reasons can be accommodated in other city settings, including shelters that are not in outbreak.
According to the city, it is working with security companies contracted to its shelter system to ensure these accommodations are provided and that no contract employee will be unable to work due to public health requirements.
Earlier on Monday, the WSO demanded that the city change what it called a "discriminatory" rule included in its contracts that require security guards in some settings to be clean-shaven.
The organization called on the city to compensate and order its contractors to reinstate about 100 bearded Sikh guards lost their jobs due to the requirement.
The WSO said the public health requirement has been in place at congregate settings since January and the security guards work for such contractors as GardaWorld, ASP Security and Star World.
The city confirmed that employees and contractors working with its Shelter, Support and Housing Administration (SSHA) department must wear a N95 mask and must be clean-shaven. It said the masks provide effective protection against COVID-19 transmission.
But the city said the WSO's complaint stems from contractors failing to accommodate their own employees.
Sikh security guards have been struggling with the rule.
"I feel very humiliated," said Birkawal Singh Anand, who works for ASP Security.
"If you ask me to clean shave my beard, it's like peeling off my skin."
Anand said he applied for a religious accommodation when he was notified of the requirement last month, but was told that would mean being relegated to a lower position with the company with lower pay.
He said his previous position working as a security guard at city respite centres was recognized as a "skilled" job by the federal government and helped him work toward permanent residency. The new jobs offered, however, do not.
He said he and other guards — many who are also working toward permanent residency — have to choose between those new jobs, finding a different job, getting laid off, or shaving their beards.
CBC News has reached out to ASP Security and other companies with questions about how they are implementing the city policy.
In an email to CBC News, GardaWorld said all employees who were unable to meet this health and safety requirement set out by the city were offered "other and equivalent opportunities within the organization" until this measure is lifted.