In the last decade, 6,600 Muslims have filed complaints with the federal government, claiming that their employers discriminated against them because of their beliefs. But Ashraf Sarandah's allegations against the United Parcel Service of America go way beyond the typical religious discrimination charges, according to his lawyers.
Ashraf claims that his boss at UPS called him "a monkey" over instant messenger, because of the color of his skin. And another manager allegedly followed him into the bathroom, mocked him for urinating sitting down, as Ashraf's particular beliefs dictate, and gave him a demonstration in "how we urinate in this country."
On Tuesday, Sarandah's lawyers announced that they were filing a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, accusing UPS of discriminating against Ashraf (pictured above with his daughter) because of his race, religion and national origin.
Sarandah, who is a Palestinian Muslim, got a job as an industrial engineer planner with UPS in Orlando, Fla., at the end of 2004. He claims that the harassment began soon after. And he says that his boss, Larry Campbell, in 2008 actually called him a monkey over instant messenger, according to a written exchange provided by Ashraf's lawyers.
"who are you calling a monkey," Sarandah replied, "that is very inappropriate." Campbell clarified that he was calling Sarandah a monkey.
Because "of my skin tone," Sarandah asked. "yep," his manager responded.
"It doesn't get more blatant than that, when a manager calls an employee a monkey," said Sarandah's attorney, Michael Hanna, of the law firm Morgan & Morgan.
UPS spokeswoman Susan Rosenberg says Sarandah only reported this incident this spring, four years after it took place, and as soon as he did, "we promptly conducted an investigation and disciplinary action was taken." The remarks were "inappropriate," she said.
Earlier this year, the harassment reached a whole new level, according to Sarandah's lawyers. Some observant Muslims like Sarandah avoid using urinals because they believe it violates principles of modesty and hygiene.
"Muslims are taught that it's very important to maintain purity and cleanliness when you use the bathroom," explains Sarandah's co-counsel Hassan Shibly, executive director of the Florida Council on American Islamic Relations. And while many Muslim men do urinate standing up, "it's sinful to get urine on your body or on your clothes," Shibly adds, "and it's obviously hard to avoid that when you use the urinal."
According to Sarandah's lawyers, this bothered a few of his managers. The lawyers describe a series of bizarre incidents that allegedly transpired in early January. It began when another supervisor purportedly accused Sarandah of clogging a toilet. The supervisor allegedly admitted to Sarandah that he had surreptitiously followed Sarandah into the bathroom, then kneeled on the floor, and watched Sarandah urinate sitting down. He was sure that the person sitting was Sarandah, because he noted the hairy legs, and said that he "knows you people have lots of hair on your bodies," according to Ashraf's lawyers.
Later that day, another manager allegedly asked Sarandah why he urinated sitting down in a toilet stall and then escorted him to the bathroom and urinated in front of him, to demonstrate "how we urinate in this country."
In a meeting soon after, Bennett and a UPS security officer once again accused Ashraf of "vandalizing" the toilet and made him sign a formal denial of the charge for his disciplinary record, according to Sarandah's attorneys.
Sarandah says that in February he went to use the bathroom, and was followed by two managers. Deeply uncomfortable, Sarandah says that he turned around and left, even though he has a kidney and bladder condition for which he was previously hospitalized. "Employees should not have to fear that their employers are kneeling under them and watching them urinate," says Shibly. "It's frankly disgusting on UPS' part."
Rosenberg didn't respond to specifics in this case, but said UPS thoroughly investigated the bathroom-related incidents and "took action." She wouldn't say whether anyone had been disciplined however. "UPS has a strict anti-discrimination and anti-retaliation policy," Rosenberg said in an interview. "And Mr. Sarandah is a current employee for UPS, and has not suffered any adverse action in his employment."
"UPS has accommodated every religious accommodation request he has made," she added.
Sarandah's lawyers claim the disturbing bathroom incidents were part of a general pattern of religious discrimination suffered by their client. For instance, a manager allegedly told Sarandah that he subscribed to Al Jazeera so that he could "keep track of your terrorist boys in Al Qaeda."
But after the bathroom incidents, which Sarandah reported to upper management, the harassment worsened, according to the lawyers. His manager would allegedly mock Sarandah during his Friday prayers, and try to intimidate him -- by staring, parking next to him, and pumping his gas pedal -- while Sarandah ate his lunch in his car.
Despite above-average evaluations every year, Sarandah says that he was passed over for promotions by people whom he alleged were less qualified. Sarandah, in fact, tried to transfer to a post in the Middle East. Although the interviewer told him that his experience, cultural familiarity, language proficiency, and glowing recommendation made him a perfect fit for the Dubai office, Sarandah was never offered the Dubai position, according to Sarandah's lawyers.
"It's a boys' club kind of culture," says Shibly, "and it held him back."
UPS has been mired in worker discrimination suits for many years. In 1999, the company agreed to pay $12.4 million in a class action suit involving 12,000 part-time black employees, who said that they were given less opportunities than their white co-workers. More recently, UPS paid out almost $30,000 in 2008 to an employee who said that she was demoted because of her gender, another $125,000 in 2010 to settle a sexual harassment suit, and $800,000 that same year to a man whom the company refused to transfer from a night-time to a daytime shift after he was diagnosed with bipolar depression and anxiety disorder.
In December last year, UPS paid out $95,000 to a deaf employee, who claimed that he was denied a sign language interpreter at staff meetings. And last month, a former UPS delivery driver sued, claiming disability discrimination. He said that he suffered Post Traumatic Stress Disorder after witnessing a gang shooting on his delivery route, holding the dying man in his arms, and becoming a gang target himself. UPS allegedly refused to change his route from one very similar to the one of the shooting.
Ashraf's lawyers say that they aren't surprised that a Muslim should be the latest target of abuse at UPS. Harassment and discrimination of Muslims took a turn for the worse a few years ago, says Shibly. A month after the Sept. 11 attacks, 47 percent of Americans had a favorable view of Islam, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll. When that same question was asked in 2010, only 37 percent said the same.
"What I really find fascinating about this case is that UPS is supposed to be a worldwide company," Shibly added. "They serve the world. They should be all about diversity. It's a global corporation."UPS maintains that it does embrace diversity. "We've got over 400,000 employees, who practice a wide range of religious beliefs," said Rosenberg. "We're really proud of the religious diversity of our employees."
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