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Workplace law a win: Sikhs

At a ceremony last week, Mayor Michael Bloomberg signed a law authored by City Councilman Mark Weprin (D-Oakland Gardens) that strengthens the city’s human rights law with respect to religious practices in the workplace.

The Workplace Religious Freedom Act requires employers to detail the fiscal impact an employee’s religious practice would have on the company in order to justify discrimination.

“New York City defined hardship in the past as de minimis burden — basically, it’s an inconvenience. As a policy, it was pretty easy to get around,” Weprin explained.

Under the new law, employers wishing to claim undue hardship will have to identify the cost of accommodating an employee’s religious observation or practice.

“They have to show a significant cost or burden. It sets a much higher standard,” the councilman said.

Weprin said he made a commitment to the Sikh community during his 2009 Council campaign to work on legislation that would prevent public and private employers from banning beards or turbans in the workplace.

Amardeep Singh, co-founder of the Sikh Coalition, said his group had worked on similar legislation with former Councilman David Weprin in 2005 that ran into decisive opposition at City Hall.

“It’s been a long six years. This time the stars just aligned,” he said. Singh said the Sikh community and other faiths were motivated in particular by discriminatory practices by public employers such as the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the NYPD.

The MTA, for example, had ?a post 9/11 policy that says Sikh employees who wish to wear their turbans to work must either adorn it with an MTA logo or are relegated to work out of the public view, Singh said.

At press time, the MTA had not responded to a request for comment.

“Public employers create the perception and send the message to private employers that this is acceptable,” he said. “They set the tone for everyone else in society.”

“The beauty of the bill is that it squarely focuses the eye on whether or not an employee can do the job or not when enjoying their religious freedoms.

Reach reporter Rich Bockmann by e-mail at rbockmann@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4574.

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