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Law to prohibit workplace bias signed

By JOHN WHITTAKER

editorial@observertoday.com

Governor Andrew M. Cuomo recently signed legislation (S.04037/.4204) which prohibits employment discrimination based on religious attire, clothing or facial hair.

The new law amends the state Human Rights Law to make clear that employers cannot refuse to hire, attain, promote or take other discriminatory action against an individual for wearing attire or facial hair in accordance with tenets of their religion. Assemblyman Andrew Goodell, R-Jamestown, and Joe Giglio, R-Gowanda, both voted in favor when the Assembly passed the legislation, 140-2, in February.

“As New Yorkers we celebrate our diversity and we champion freedom of religious expression in all places, including the workplace,” Cuomo said. “This law will protect people from discriminatory employment practices based on religious attire or facial hair and makes it crystal clear to anyone who may still have doubts that New York has zero tolerance for bigotry of any kind.”

Assemblyman Edward Ra, R-Franklin Square, asked if the legislation had exceptions for possible safety situations for areas like a factory floor where a piece of attire could become entangled in machinery or for those working in food-service jobs where there could be questions about sanitary conditions.

Assemblyman David Weprin, D-Hollis, said it would be up to employers, in the food safety instance, to establish that there is a reason for the exception.

“I do hope that as we, you know, look at this issue going forward any of those types of issues come up, that we make sure clear that in those circumstances that the employer, you know, who was making a reasonable attempt to accommodate the employee, but has, you know, a safety or sanitary concern related to the operating of their business, that we make sure that they are protected as well,” said Ra, who also voted in favor of the legislation. “So, I know a number of our colleagues have voted against this in the past for, you know, with regard to those concerns, but I hope that, you know, going forward we can continue if we need to further address the issue.”

The legislation makes clear the protections of the New York State Human Rights Law, which also prohibits employers from treating applicants or employees differently because of that person’s religious beliefs, and it requires employers to reasonably accommodate an employee’s religious practices.

Weprin, in explaining his vote, dedicated the legislation to a man named Kevin Harrington. Harrington was born an Irish-Catholic and later converted to Sikhism.

“And he was a train operator at the front of the train for the E-train, which those of you from Queens and New York City know goes into and out of the World Trade Center,” Weprin said.

“And he was a hero during 9/11. He actually drove the E-train back and forth while the buildings were burning in the World Trade Center and actually rescued hundreds of individuals and brought them to their safety while he was risking his life. But how did — what did the MTA do to reward him? What happened was, after 9/11, the MTA got hundreds and hundreds of calls from people from the public complaining that there was a terrorist driving the E-train. And why did they say that? Because he had a long beard and a turban, and resembled Osama Bin Laden. So, for the Kevin Harrington’s of the world and to put an end to ignorance and discrimination, I withdraw my request and proudly vote in the affirmative.”

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