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"NYC alleges religious discrimination by JFK airport contractor"
Wednesday, January 25, 2017
NYC alleges religious discrimination by JFK airport contractor
By Bart Jansen
The New York City Human Rights Commission announced Wednesday allegations of
religious discrimination against Pax Assist, a contractor that provides
wheelchair assistance to passengers at John F. Kennedy International Airport.
The company, which serves 32 airlines and employs more than 250 workers at
JFK's Terminal 4, allegedly denied breaks to Muslims for daily prayers or for
eating after fasting for Ramadan, according to the commission.
Supervisors at Pax Assist also allegedly harassed Muslim workers over a radio
system when they requested break time with messages such as "we'll give you a
break on our time, not your time" and "we don't care about Ramadan," according
to the commission.
If confirmed, the allegations carry a maximum $250,000 civil penalty, with
potential compensatory damages such as when workers are fired unfairly.
"We will not tolerate religious discrimination of any kind in New York City,"
said Hollis Pfitsch, deputy commissioner of the law enforcement bureau.
"Employees of every faith have a legal right to request religious
accommodations and should not be harassed or discriminated against by their
employer for requesting break time to observe their faith."
After receiving the complaint last week, Pax Assist has 30 days to respond. The
company didn't reply to USA TODAY's request for comment.
The commission and Pax Assist could negotiate a resolution to the charges. If
not, the case will be heard by an administrative judge, who could issue a
recommendation for a fine or other resolution. The commission would then
consider the recommendation, and could raise or lower a proposed fine.
The commission is a city agency that enforces the human-rights law against
discrimination in 22 categories. About 900 complaints were filed last year,
which represented a 30% rise in reporting of discrimination about race,
religion, national origin and immigration status, according to spokesman Seth
Hoy. About 400 cases remain open.
"Discrimination does not just happen on the street, it can touch every part of
our daily lives, including in the workplace," Mayor Bill de Blasio said. "Now
more than ever, it is important for everyone to stand up against discrimination
and hate, and to protect the rights of Muslim Americans."
While most cases are filed by individuals, the commission itself filed charges
against Pax Assist for an alleged "pattern or practice" of violations. Three
workers have alleged discrimination so far, but the investigation will continue
with interviews of supervisors named in the complaint, Hoy said.
Isha Jahan, 24, of New York, worked for Pax Assist taking passengers to gates
for four months in 2016. She told USA TODAY that supervisors sometimes refused
to let her take a break for prayers, unless she threatened to tell the union.
"It's important - very important - in the Muslim religion to pray," she said.
Jahan faced a tougher challenge with her observance of Ramadan, a month of
fasting from sunrise to sunset. She asked to push her break back to 8 p.m. so
that she could eat after breaking her fast, but was refused.
Jahan said she trembled and felt sick when she wasn't able to eat after the
fast, and it would make her "very emotionally upset." She has since found
The union organizing with Muslim workers, 32BJ Service Employees International
Union, brought the allegations to the commission's attention. Muslims pray five
times per day, but Pax workers were repeatedly denied requests for 10- to
15-minute breaks during the last year, according to the commission.
"Airline subcontractors like Pax should respect their employees, not only for
the hard work they do and important services they provide to passengers every
day, but also as human beings and people with families, convictions and human
dignity," said Hector Figueroa, the union's local president.
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