Sears Roebuck’s home product repair division will pay more than a half million dollars to settle religious accommodation complaints brought by Sabbath observant employees, state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer announced this week.
The settlement reached Monday requires the Illinois-based retail giant to provide back pay and legal fees to five plaintiffs; to pay $225,000 to the American Law Institute to create a training program on religious accommodation; and provide scholarships of about $12,000 for 10 Sabbath observers to attend New York technical schools.
The company will also pay the attorney general’s office $100,000 for the cost of its investigation of claims that it denied employment to five Orthodox Jews and one Seventh Day Adventist under the rationale that Saturday was the busiest day for repair work.
An audit of time records by Spitzer’s office determined that Tuesday was the most active day for appliance repair, he said.
“We have negotiated a settlement that hopefully will be a template for other companies,” Spitzer told a group of lawyers at an Orthodox Union seminar shortly after announcing the deal, the result of five months of negotiation. “This sends a message not only that there is a law and we will find out if you break it and prosecute you, but also that it is possible to comply in a way that is good for business as well.”
A spokeswoman for Sears, Peggy Palter, said the company admitted no wrongdoing. “But we certainly believe with this agreement we are looking at an innovative way to try to accommodate individuals who observe Sabbath on Saturday,” she said.
Palter maintained that although Saturday is the most requested day for appliance repairs, the company did not have enough technicians to accommodate the requests. “There is a difference between looking at service actually done and service requested,” she said of the attorney general’s audit.
Other stipulations of the consent decree include allowing Sabbath observers to work Sundays; offering binding arbitration to anyone else who claims they were not accommodated by Sears over the past three years; and offering training to Sears personnel in New York involved in hiring and recruiting.
Kalman Katz, a Borough Park man who was denied employment by Sears, is one of five Jewish applicants who will receive back pay via the agreement. “They told me that I scored very well on the test, but can’t be hired,” said Katz at a press conference Tuesday in which he hailed the settlement. “I feel very good about it, both for me and for people in my community who can now go to school and not worry about finding a job.”
The Seventh Day Adventist, Donovan Reed, reached a separate settlement with Sears several months ago. Reed said he was fired when he converted to the Seventh Day faith and the company refused to change his schedule.
The director of the Orthodox Union’s Institute for Public Affairs, Nathan Diament, said he hoped the agreement would prompt Congress to pass the Workplace Religious Freedom Act. “[The] measure is designed to address this very issue and ensure that no religious American is faced with choosing between career and conscience,” said Diament.