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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
USA TODAY 


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 
another job.

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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