Posted on 31 May 2012 by Neilson
New York City's Metropolitan Transportation Authority backed off a controversial uniform policy Wednesday that required employees who wear religious headdress to either affix them with a company logo or work in positions that don't require interaction with the public.
The Justice Department settled a 2004 antidiscrimination lawsuit against the MTA's New York City Transit division Wednesday, after the agency agreed to permit employees to wear turbans, head scarves, yarmulkes and other forms of religious garments without attaching an MTA label.
Under the proposed settlement, which still must be approved by a federal judge, workers would be required to wear those garments in the MTA's standard shade -- "plain, solid navy blue."
MTA will also set in place new policies to govern religious accommodations for workers, provide guidance to managers on how to impose the policy, and pay $184,500 to the eight current and former employees who were affected by the prior ban. Some had been transferred to positions where they didn't interact with the public rather than comply with the requirement to wear the MTA logo.
The settlement was hailed by plaintiffs.
Amardeep Singh, a co-founder of the Sikh Coalition, said the MTA's insistence on adding the logos had been consistently ignored in recent years, as multiple lawsuits proceeded. Some Sikh employees kept an MTA logo in their pockets, to be displayed only when uniform inspections occurred, he said.
"The sense was that the MTA logo was a corporate logo, and wearing it on a turban would defile it," Mr. Singh said. " Just the way wearing a McDonald's logo on a yarmulke would be disrespectful, or wearing a Target logo on a hijab would be disrespectful."
An MTA spokesman noted that the settlement doesn't admit wrongdoing by the agency, and said the policy on employee headwear was long-standing.
MTA officials explained the past policy as a necessity for passengers, in part so they could readily identify agency employees in times of emergency.
But Mr. Singh noted that one plaintiff in suits against the policy, Sikh train operator Kevin Harrington, was given an award by the MTA for his efforts during the Sept. 11 attacks, including reversing his train out of lower Manhattan, manually opening the doors and leading passengers to safety -- all while wearing a turban and no MTA logo.
Mr. Harrington was among the first MTA employees disciplined for wearing his turban in 2004. He said he chose to fight the MTA's policy, which he considered discriminatory.
"I wasn't going to become a second-class citizen," he said. The MTA's later insistence that Harrington and others add a logo patch to their turbans was intended "to save face and to punish us," Mr. Harrington said.