City accuses JFK contractor of religious discrimination

By Patrick Donachie

Supervisors at a wheelchair assistance contractor servicing travelers through John F. Kennedy International Airport allegedly discriminated against their Muslim employees, according to charges filed by the New York City Human Rights Commission.

Supervisors at Pax Assist, Inc., which serves 32 airlines and employs more than 250 workers at JFK’s Terminal 4, allegedly harassed their Muslim employees over a public radio address system when those employees requested breaks to accommodate prayer times during Ramadan.

Some Muslim employees requested to push back existing 10 or 15 minute breaks in order to properly break their religious fasts, but were consistently refused. Supervisors also allegedly broadcast over a radio system, saying “we don’t care about Ramadan,” and “we’ll give you a break on our time, not your time.”

“We will not tolerate religious discrimination of any kind in New York City,” Hollis V. Pfitsch, the deputy commissioner of the law enforcement bureau at the city’s Human Rights Commission said. “Employees of every faith have a legal right to request religious accommodations and should not be harassed or discriminated against by their employers for requesting break time to observe their faith.”

The city’s Human Rights Commission first learned of the alleged harassment in August, after representatives of the 32BJ SEIU reached out to them. The employees in question are not represented by 32BJ, but the union had heard of the incidents and informed the HRC. The commission filed charges Jan. 13.

A spokeswoman for the HRC said the case was fairly unique in that it was initiated by the commission, which can file complaints against employers accused of discrimination on behalf of employees who are not identified. She said the number of anonymous tips about Pax Assist, Inc. indicated a pattern or practice of discrimination, which led the HRC to file in lieu of individual employees.

An e-mail requesting comment from Pax Assist, Inc. went unanswered.

The HRC has the authority to fine employers up to $250,000 in civil penalties if the commission uncovers “willful and malicious violations of the law,” and can award compensatory damages to victims. The HRC can also mandate trainings on the specifics of the city’s Human Rights Law and can order changes in a company’s break policies to accommodate employees’ religious practices.

Mayor Bill de Blasio encouraged all New Yorkers to remain vigilant of the specter of religious discrimination, saying it is not always simple to see.

“Discrimination does not just happen on the street, it can touch every part of our daily lives, including in the workplace,” the mayor 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.”

The HRC encouraged individuals who feel they may have been a victim of workplace discrimination to call 311 and ask for “human rights.”

Reach reporter Patrick Donachie by e-mail at pdonachie@cnglocal.com or by phone at (718) 260–4573.

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