One of the most talked-about suits associated with the trendy French Connection label this year won’t be making its way down fashion show runways.
Rather, the suit was filed by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in Manhattan District Court on behalf of Amanda Nathan, an Orthodox Jew who claims she was denied a job because she is Sabbath observant.
Nathan said she was offered a position as a trim buyer at the firm’s New York offices in February 2001, but the offer was rescinded after she informed the company she would have to leave early on Fridays during winter months. Nathan told the French Connection that she was willing to make up the lost time on other days.
“They said they had to think it over,” said Nathan, 25, a Long Island native and graduate of the Hebrew Academy of the Five Towns and Rockaways. “But I never heard back from them. A few days later when I called, I was told the job requires the person to be around on Fridays between 9 and 6, and no one has the time to cover your responsibilities in the afternoons.”
Nathan had held a similar position at another fashion concern and said she had no problem leaving early on winter Fridays.
An EEOC investigation after Nathan filed her complaint showed that other French Connection employees left before 5 p.m. Fridays, said Monique Roberts, the EEOC attorney representing Nathan.
“Another trim buyer hired after Ms. Nathan gave an affidavit that she was allowed to leave early on Fridays, if she needed time, and made it up during the week,” said Roberts.
A spokeswoman for French Connection Group, Laura Bernstein, would not address the complaint directly but said the company “is an equal opportunity employer and takes great pride in the diversity of its workforce.”
But Nathan, who is interning at a sportswear company, said she was told by an employee that the company had experienced difficulty with another Sabbath-observant employee “seven or eight years ago.”
French Connection Group, founded in 1972 by CEO Stephen Marks, a British Jew, has more than 1,500 stores worldwide, including 30 in North America, and owns the design house Nicole Farhi.
The youth-oriented men’s and women’s apparel company also sells accessories such as hats, backpacks and fragrances. Most of the company’s sales are in the United Kingdom, where it has aroused controversy with suggestive advertising playing off the acronym for French Connection UK
The EEOC said it will seek injunctive relief and back pay for Nathan, as well as unspecified compensatory and punitive damages in the case.
“We will take all necessary steps to ensure that Sabbath observers are able to work in an environment free of discrimination,” said Katherine Bissell, the EEOC’s regional attorney in New York, in a statement.
The suit relies on a provision of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which bars discrimination or harassment against employees on the basis of race, national origin religion or gender.
The EEOC has called on Jewish groups to help publicize the case, and the Orthodox Union’s Institute for Public Affairs released a statement applauding the agency’s action.
“The Orthodox Jewish community deeply appreciates [the EEOC action] to combat religious discrimination in the workplace, particularly with regard to Jewish Sabbath observers, and to ensure that members of our community, like all other Americans, cannot be forced to choose between career and conscience,” said the institute’s director, Nathan Diament.
The suit is one of an increasing number filed in recent years against major employers claiming religious discrimination against Jews. The companies include the Jean-Louis David hair salon chain, which barred an employee from wearing his yarmulke; the home repair division of Sears, which had declined to hire technicians who were unavailable on Saturdays; and the New York City Transit Authority, which disciplined Jewish and Seventh Day Adventist bus drivers for failing to report on Saturday. Each case was settled in favor of the plaintiffs.
Discrimination complaints may be made on the city level through the Human Rights Commission or the state attorney general’s civil rights division, and on the federal level through the EEOC.
The Human Rights Commission is investigating 122 complaints of religious discrimination, 33 of which were filed this year. No data was available on last year’s total.
Avi Schick, a deputy counsel to Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, said the increasing number of complaints may be a result of the tight job market caused by a worsening economy. His office has settled 10 complaints in the past four years, up from none in the previous four.
“As the job market constricts, it’s possible that employers are less willing to accommodate the religious needs of their employers,” said Schick. “There are fewer jobs and more applicants.”
On Sept. 17, Gov. George Pataki signed a new state law providing a greater measure of workplace protection, more clearly defining the standards by which employers may prove that they are providing reasonable accommodation for employees with special needs. The measure had been advocated by Spitzer and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.
A federal religious accommodation law has been stalled in Congress for several years since a version was deemed unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court.
In another case seeking religious accommodation of a different nature, a Jewish inmate in Florida is suing in federal court for the right to receive kosher meals at the Everglades Correctional Institution in Tallahassee.
The prison’s refusal to provide the meals illegally burden Alan Cotton’s exercise of his religious freedom under state and federal law, according to the suit filed by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. Cotton is serving a life sentence for murder and drug-related charges.
“Although the Florida Department of Corrections provides diets for every other type of inmate, they absolutely refused to provide a diet necessary for a Jew to live,” said Isaac Jaroslawicz of the Aleph Institute, a center for religious freedom advocacy in Miami.
Debbie Buchanan, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Corrections, said the department had been advised by counsel to make no comment about the lawsuit. She also declined to clarify the department’s policy on meal accommodation.