Even as he announced the settlement of discrimination claims against two major corporations, Attorney General Eliot Spitzer last week called for enacting the most comprehensive law in the nation to strictly define the accommodation employers must make for workers’ religious observance.
"The statute that is in place is inadequate at its root," said Spitzer, who was joined by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver at a press conference Thursday. "We need a better law or we will not be able to protect the rights of workers the way they need to be protected."
Silver announced that the bill had passed the Assembly Wednesday with support from Democrats and Republicans. He said the measure has no sponsor in the state Senate.
"The bill provides full and fair access to employment for millions of New Yorkers of faith for whom religious practice is an essential part of their lives," said Silver.
The officials were surrounded by plaintiffs in recent discrimination cases and representatives of Jewish, Seventh Day Adventist and Sikh groups that support the bill.
Current law requires that employers provide reasonable accommodation for Sabbath observers or others required to miss work because of a religious observance, provided the accommodation does not pose insurmountable hardship to the company.
Similar to a bill currently stalled in Congress, the proposed state bill addresses the right of employees to grow beards, wear turbans or skullcaps, or dress in a matter consistent with their religious practices. It also provides a more specific definition of the undue economic hardship that would exempt an employer from providing religious accommodations.
"It’s all rather vague right now and decided ad hoc, case by case," said Marc Stern, the counsel for the American Jewish Congress, and a supporter of the law. "This proposal would lend form to that inquiry."
Stern successfully championed the case of a Seventh Day Adventist, Mary Meyers, who took on the city’s Transit Authority for requiring her to drive a bus on Saturday. The TA eventually changed her schedule. Meyers appeared at the press conference Thursday, saying a strict law might have prevented her ordeal.
Spitzer has made fighting religious discrimination a priority, settling 10 cases since taking office in 1998 as part of what he calls the Religious Liberty Initiative.
In the latest cases, Zalmen Pollak, a chasidic man from Monsey, alleged that he was denied a job at the Hobart Corp. because he could not perform appliance repairs on Saturdays.
Another plaintiff, Avi Avada of Brooklyn, charged that Virgin Atlantic Airlines refused to accommodate his request for Saturdays off, forcing him to resign as a passenger services employee at John F. Kennedy Airport.
That case was referred to Spitzer by Assemblyman Dov Hikind of Borough Park.
At the press conference, an emotional Pollak said he had taken courses in appliance repair only to be offered a job stocking shelves because of his Sabbath observance.
"I told them this is not what I went to school for," he said.
The settlement with the Ohio-based Hobart, which makes and services commercial food equipment, ensures that each of its six locations in New York set aside at least 25 percent of repair positions for Sabbath observers and create a "Sabbath friendly" work schedule for them.
Hobart also agreed to compensate Pollak with back pay (the difference between the position he was denied and a lower-paying job he took) and offer him the next available position at the Rockland facility near his home. Hobart personnel will also receive regularly scheduled training on religious accommodation requirements.
The Virgin Atlantic settlement requires the airline to arrange shift swaps for Sabbath observers and develop special work schedules, where possible, to accommodate employees’ requests for time off for religious observance.
Spitzer previously had settled workplace claims against Sears Roebuck, Federal Express and the hair salon chain Jean Louis David.
Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, through a spokesman, had no comment on the religious observance bill, which had been sent by Spitzer to both houses of the legislature.
Silver said he did not expect the bill to become an election-year issue.
"Hopefully people will see this as a fair and balanced bill," he said.
Although Republicans generally shun measures that regulate corporate behavior, Stern of the AJCongress said some might see it as a way to prevent future litigation by more clearly defining compliance.
"Putting it in a statute makes it easier," he said. Stern also noted that the measure does not provide for legal fees for attorneys when cases are settled.