NEW YORK (Jul. 8)
The New York State Division of Human Rights has determined there is “probable cause” to believe that the computer company founded by Ross Perot unlawfully discriminated against an Orthodox Jewish woman who would not work on Sukkot.
The case involves Nancee Haft, a former employee of Electronic Data Systems Corp., who was dismissed from her job in September 1985 after she failed to show up for work on the Jewish holiday.
The state panel’s May 28 ruling does not indicate that Perot’s company broke the law, but only opens the way for a hearing before an administrative judge.
While the case concerns an incident that occurred nearly seven years ago, it has taken on importance now that Perot is a serious contender for the U.S. presidency.
Since the still-unofficial Perot campaign has provided few details about the maverick candidate’s policy stances on various issues, the practices of his company have received detailed scrutiny as possible clues to what a Perot presidency might be like.
The case is also important because it is the second one to allege discrimination against Jewish employees at EDS. Jewish groups have raised concerns about the dismissal of an employee named Reggie Dallaire from the company in the early 1980s.
Dallaire, who converted from Catholicism to Judaism, was fired for wearing a beard, which he claimed was an expression of his new religious beliefs.
While EDS had a longstanding policy requiring male employees to be clean-shaven, a federal district court found the company discriminated against him on the basis of his religion and ordered him reinstated.
THROWN OUT OF OFFICE
The case involving the Sukkot holiday observance was filed in 1986 by Haft, who now uses her married name, Bloom.
The incident at issue occurred while Perot was still chairman of EDS, a position he left the following year. Though Perot had already sold the company to General Motors, his picture was still on the inside cover of the company’s benefits books and his signature appeared on the employee agreement signed by Haft.
Haft had been hired by EDS on Sept. 13, 1985. After starting work, she requested to be absent without pay during the first two days and final days of Sukkot, which began two weeks after she was hired.
“They said that if I didn’t come to work that Monday and Tuesday (the first days of Sukkot), then I didn’t have a job there on Wednesday,” Bloom said in an interview.
Arriving at work Wednesday, she was indeed dismissed and allegedly thrown out of the office.
EDS claimed in its court papers that allowing Haft to take off for the holiday would have posed an “undue hardship,” which would legally exempt the company from having to accommodate an employee’s religious observances.
But the American Jewish Congress, which helped litigate the case for Haft before finding her a pro bono law firm, maintained in a letter to the New York State Division of Human Rights that the company “plainly viewed Ms. Haft’s religious needs as ‘unreasonable’ from the start and made no effort to work around them. It simply fired her.”
Morton Meyerson, Perot’s top Jewish adviser and the president of EDS in 1985, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in a statement that he had no knowledge of the case, pointing out that the company had 45,000 employees at the time.
“We had a policy of not discriminating against anyone based on religion, race, color or sexual orientation,” he said. “Since I am Jewish, I vigorously enforced that policy.”
The relevance of Meyerson’s Jewishness was recently dismissed by the Anti-Defamation League, when Perot himself mentioned it in response to a question about the Dallaire case asked during an ABC television appearance.
“The fact that the president (of EDS) was a Jew is nice, but it’s irrelevant,” said Abraham Foxman, ADL’s national director.
For Bloom, Perot’s candidacy has reawakened unpleasant memories that lay dormant in New York State’s slow-moving legal system.
An official of one Jewish organization familiar with the case said he did not think the issue is one of anti-Semitism.
“The question is one of pluralism and tolerance of difference,” said the official, who asked not to be identified. “It’s very clear EDS had a corporate culture of inhospitality to anyone who was somewhat different.”