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Sikhs Initiated California’s Employment Law

By Anju Kaur, SikhNN staff writer, Washington Bureau
Posted: Thursday, September 13, 2012 | 09:12 pm

From right to left: Darshan Singh Mundy, public relations officer at the Sacramento gurdwara, California Gov. Jerry Brown, and Assemblywoman Mariko Yamada at the signing of the state's strong new employment bill.

Photo Source: Office of Assemblywoman Mariko Yamada

California employers will have to bear the burden of proof to show significant economic hardship in denying turban and beard accommodations for employees, and they will no longer be able to hide Sikh workers from public view as a means of accommodation.

Sikhs initiated the ‘Discrimination in Employment: Reasonable Accommodations’ bill, also known as ‘Assembly Bill No. 1964’. California Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law on Saturday, Sept. 8. It is the strongest anti job-discrimination law in the country.

Sikhs will have substantial employment protections, but the largest number of its beneficiaries includes the Jewish, Muslim and Adventist populations in California, which is about two million people.

After the Wisconsin gurdwara shooting tragedy, people have been associating Sikhs with victimization, said Rajdeep Singh, director of law and policy for the Sikh Coalition.

But the passing of this new law shows that “Sikhs can lead efforts to promote civil rights for all people,” he said. “That is the best way to move forward in this country. Take the leadership role to protect the rights of all people. This is the Sikh tradition.”

NEW YORK

The Sikh Coalition was instrumental in the passing of a similar bill in New York City, known as the Workplace Religious Freedom Act. Mayor Michael Bloomberg signed it into law on Sept. 2, 2011.

According to a 2008 coalition report, one in 10 Sikhs in the city were suffering employment discrimination because of their identity, a higher percentage compared to the general population.

The state already had a law but it was too ambiguous, Rajdeep Singh said. The new law enhances religion-based protections for employees by requiring employers to show “significant difficulty or expense” as opposed to the previous requirement of “minimal difficulty or expense.” But the coalition was unable to persuade city legislators to specifically eliminate segregation as an accommodation option.

“It is the ultimate form of degradation,” Rajdeep Singh said. “It perpetuates stereotypes, and has a stunting effect on job growth. In any profession you have to interface with people.”

A high-profile discrimination case involved a seven-year-old federal lawsuit against the city’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Its post-9/11 policy forced Sikh and Muslim workers to either brand their religious headwear with its logo, or work away from public view. That case was settled on June 1, 2012, with the MTA reversing its policy, including regarding segregation. But segregation is still an option with other employers.

Oregon and New Jersey also has similar laws.

CALIFORNIA

When the New York City bill passed last year, Darshan Singh Mundy, public relations officer at Gurdwara Sikh Temple of Sacramento, said he sent a copy to his longtime friend, California Assemblywoman Mariko Yamada, D-Davis.

“In California, Sikh don’t have anything,” he told her.

Coincidentally, in late August 2011, less than a week before the New York City legislation was signed, Yamada had attended a hearing hosted by the coalition in Mountain View, called ‘Unheard Voices of 9/11’. Sikhs gave testimony on their experiences with hate crimes, school bullying, profiling and job discrimination.

“It was a cumulative effort over many many years,” Rajdeep Singh said. Between 2008 and 2010, the coalition had conducted surveys of Sikhs in the San Francisco Bay area and found that 12 percent experienced job discrimination.

“We can’t expect legislators to pass laws unless we prove to them that there is a problem,” he said. The report recommended that the California legislature take action.

“I think it was a joint effort,” Yamada told SikhNN. “It was a good idea brought by good forces.” Yamada had been working with local Sikhs on civil rights issues for at least a decade.

“She helped in so many local cases,” Darshan Singh said. “She is well known to Sikhs in this area.”

Yamada had been following another high-profile case in which Trilochan Singh Oberoi filed a lawsuit, in December 2009, against the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation for refusing to accommodate his religiously mandated beard when he applied for a job as a prison guard. The corrections department’s policy required applicants to shave their beards for a gas mask fit-test. Trilochan Singh settled the case, in October 2011, for a desk job and $295,000 in damages. The prisons’ policy was left in place.

In another case, against Disneyland, in Anaheim, a Muslim woman was asked to remove her hijab to continue working in a public aria. She refused. Her case is still in court.

“There are many such cases in California and the rest of the country,” Yamada said. “It is a recurring issue that seemed to cry out for a legislative solution,”

By December 2011, the assemblywoman was getting ready to draft a bill for California.

Yamada’s staff worked with many community groups but her office first contacted the coalition, in January 2012, to see if the advocacy group was interested in sponsoring the legislation.

“It was a very big bill for us to bring to fruition,” she said. “The Sikh Coalition was instrumental in the development of the legislation.”

“We happily agreed,” Rajdeep Singh said. The coalition and members of Yamada’s staff drafted the bill.

The local sangat and 18 interfaith organizations lobbied for the bill.






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