Religious Discrimination Against Sikhs in Espanola

Religious Discrimination Against Sikhs in Espanola

"Shave your beard or lose your job!" – Ms. Kelly and Ms. Romero to Sahaj Singh…

I remember many years ago posting on MrSikhNet about some of my friends who are Sikhs and are EMS (Emergency Medical Service) and how Sikhs are being able to work in the mainstream in full form. However, it appears that the current management of the Española Hospital and Presbyterian Health Services has been failing by fostering a work environment rife with religious discrimination, particularly to Sikhs.

I remember when it seemed that majority of the EMS staff were Sikhs, since they were everywhere driving around Espanola helping people. Now, they are pretty much all gone as a result of this discrimination and other reasons. I often get asked by other Sikhs if I faced discrimination and mostly responded, NO….since we live here in a small town and Sikhs have lived here for over 40 years and are well known in the area and with the local governments. I have posted stories like of Prabhu Singh who works at Los Alamos National Lab and works in full bana. So when I heard from Sahaj Singh and others about these issues I was surprised to hear this was happening. It’s sad to hear of discrimination in any form and that it was happening right here in little Espanola, New Mexico.

Discrimination is nothing new here. Other Sikhs like Guru Tej Singh Khalsa faced this when trying to work in the police, but was unable to do so because of his turban. The result of this was him starting Akal Security. You watch a video and hear his story. This was a long time ago so you would think that we would be beyond this. Apparently not in the medical field!

We take a few steps forward and then some steps back. I think all the Muslim-terrorist phobia of Americans has sparked a lot more discrimination all over America towards Sikhs.  At the same time I am watching the new film by Angad Bhai called "The Reunion" which is a short telling a story about two friends who share common background and reunite after several years of  being apart.  One is a Sikh who has cut his hair after being brutalized  during a hate crime, and the other has kept his hair since birth.   Their dialogue deals with issues Sikhs face when trying to assimilate  into modern American society, while maintaining their cultural and  religious heritage. 

 Sahaj Singh was able to get the help of the New Mexico ACLU and has filed charges with the New Mexico Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) against Española Hospital and Presbyterian Health Services for fostering a work environment rife with religious discrimination and failing to take reasonable measures to rectify the situation.  You can read the news story by them which is currently featured on their home page.

 


At the Obama Presidential election rally in Espanola. SiriNirongkar Khalsa& Sahaj as Mobile Bike EMS

Below you can read Sahaj Khalsa’s full affidavit about the type of discrimination going on towards many of the Sikhs working for the Espanola Hospital (Presbyterian Health Services)

AFFIDAVIT OF SAHAJ KHALSA

My name is Sahaj Khalsa and I am 35 years old.  I have been subject to an illegal and hostile work environment at the Espanola Hospital and retaliation for reporting the same.  I was employed by Presbyterian Health Services1 as a Paramedic and Field Operations Supervisor from September 2001 to December 2010.  I am a practicing Sikh, was born a Sikh, and have maintained all of the tenets of the Sikh faith since birth.  One of the tenets of Sikhism is maintaining uncut hair, including beards.  As a result, I have never shaved or cut my hair.2 My hair is tied up and contained in a turban, which is also an article of my faith.  All of the concerns set forth below are centered on discrimination that I faced in the work environment as a result of my sincerely held religious beliefs and Presbyterian’s failure to take reasonable measures to rectify the situation, despite my numerous complaints to Human Resources.

In between 2000-2001, then Espanola Ambulance Manager, Dennis Cronin, hired multiple Sikh paramedics.  Until recently, there were five bearded Sikh employees who all worked at Espanola Ambulance (“EA”) for Presbyterian.  Collectively, Sikh employees have served Presbyterian and the people of Northern New Mexico for over 45 years.  As a group, Sikhs have an exemplary work record and have provided excellent care to the people in need.  This relationship benefited patients, the Sikh employees, and Presbyterian.

Regrettably, something has changed, and Sikhs are no longer welcome as Presbyterian employees.  In 2007 or 2008, former Presbyterian employee Siri Khalsa applied to be the Operations Director for EVEMS.  Josh Duran, an EMT-Intermediate, told Siri Khalsa that if Siri Khalsa was hired none of the employees, except Sikh employees, would listen to him.  From 2008 to 2009, David Payne, the Operations Director hired instead of Siri Khalsa, created unusual working schedules so that certain employees could avoid working with Sikh employees.  And the most notable shift toward the intolerance of Sikh employees began when Brenda Romero (“Ms.  Romero”) replaced Derrick Yu as hospital administrator in the middle of 2009.3

1 I worked for Espanola Ambulance which is affiliated with Espanola Valley Emergency Medical Services (“EVEMS”) and Espanola Hospital, but all entities are under Presbyterian Health Services and will be referred to as “Presbyterian”, unless the distinction is warranted.
2 With the exception that my beard was shaved once when I required surgery.
3 The pattern of discrimination against Sikhs became particularly apparent when Ms. Romero became hospital administrator.  Some examples follow: In October 2009 a Sikh employee was forced to resign for failing to write patient care reports, while, in stark contrast, Presbyterian afforded other non-Sikh employees who had made the same mistake the opportunity to submit patient care forms months after supervisors discovered that they too had not submitted the appropriate reports.  Employees in Presbyterian’s payroll department have referred to “all of the Sikhs” and “all of the Khalsas” working too much.  Also, another Sikh employee’s vehicle has been keyed repeatedly while it was parked at work, causing significant damage.  This particular employee raised this issue with hospital administration, and the administration refused to take action.  No other vehicles have suffered similar damage while parked at work.  More recently, raises were provided for all EVEMS employees across the board with the exception of a small number of employees.  Incredibly the only two remaining Sikhs, a female Sikh employee, Dhyana Velasco (formerly Dhyana Khalsa), and I were among the few employees who did not receive the raises.

Over the past few years, Sikh employees endured derogatory comments in the workplace about their religion, management’s inattention to and facilitation of the discrimination, and management’s repeated requests, turned threats for the male Sikh employees to shave their beards.  In the face of this brash discrimination, one by one, the Sikh employees have either left or been forced to resign.  As a result, from April 2010 to November 2010, before I was forcibly discharged, I was the lone bearded Sikh employee who worked at EA; and predictably, my experience was no different than my other Sikh former co-workers’.

I first brought my concerns about discrimination and a hostile work environment to Presbyterian Human Resource Officer, Kim Kelly (“Ms.  Kelly”), in late May or early June 2009, after a staff meeting.  In that discussion, I apprised Ms. Kelly of the following: some employees were unwilling to work with Sikhs and had changed their shifts to avoid Sikhs, and a previous director, David Payne, even directed a third ambulance be scheduled so individuals would not have to work with Sikh employees.  I also reported that I heard that employees in the Albuquerque Human Resources and Payroll offices had made comments regarding “all the Sikhs” and “all the Khalsas”4 working too much.

Instead of investigating my specific concerns as required by Presbyterian policy, Ms. Kelly merely responded by attending—along with Maria Hidalgo (“Ms.  Hildalgo”), also from Human Resources—three staff meetings to remind all employees in general terms of Presbyterian’s anti-discrimination policy.  Since those meetings, the environment at Presbyterian continued to deteriorate.

The hostility and discrimination against me came to a head on or about February 12, 2010.  While I was the supervisor on duty, a Presbyterian employee threatened, verbally abused, and physically assaulted me.  The co-worker’s threats included statements directed at my religion.  This incident was reported via email to Dennis Martinez (“Mr.  Martinez”), my supervisor, and to Ms. Kelly.  I again raised the issue of a hostile work environment in this email.

Ms. Kelly did conduct an investigation of this incident.  However, even though Ms. Kelly substantiated the wrongful conduct by the employee who attacked me, Presbyterian did not terminate the employee, and Ms. Kelly outrageously condoned the other employee’s behavior in comments to me.

In early 2010, when Human Resources finally launched an investigation into the general allegations of a hostile work environment during which they interviewed many, if not all, of the EA employees, per Ms. Kelly, the investigation revealed that discrimination in this work environment was widespread.

As a result of the investigation, on March 26, 2010, Ms. Kelly and Ms. Romero convened a meeting with all EA employees.  The supposed intent of this meeting was to “set a new day” and inform everyone that discrimination and unequal treatment of any minority would be unacceptable.  However, Ms. Kelly and Ms. Romero outrageously used the “new day” to fortify discrimination against Sikhs and retaliate against me for having made complaints of discrimination.  During the meeting, many new policies were announced regarding scheduling, daily duties, acceptable behavior, and employee uniforms.  The uniform policy included a provision that per OSHA policy, facial hair would no longer be allowed.  After I inquired as to how the new policy on facial hair would affect me, because I knew Presbyterian had to make a reasonable attempt to accommodate my sincerely held religious beliefs and the integrity of my religious facial hair, Ms. Kelly and Ms. Romero told me to shave my beard or lose my job.  This announcement was made in front of the majority of EA employees who I was expected to supervise.  And again, although Ms. Kelly had substantiated instances of discrimination in the workplace, she failed to take any disciplinary actions against those employees responsible for the hostile work environment.

My co-workers were emboldened by management’s ratification of discrimination against Sikhs; and after the meeting on March 26, 2010, the environment at work worsened considerably for me.  Some employees clearly treated me differently, whereas others avoided speaking to me.  It is little wonder, given administration’s public announcement that I was no longer welcome at Presbyterian unless he shaved his beard.  My sincerely held beliefs were belittled even further by Ms. Kelly when she approached two non-practicing Sikh employees, Guru Dham Khalsa and Guru Bahdur Khalsa,5 and asked them about the meaning of a Sikh cutting his hair and/or shaving.  Guru Dham Khalsa attempted to explain to her the religious significance of this practice, as he understood it, and Ms. Kelly responding by asking him if anything “physically” happened to Guru Dham Khalsa when he decided to cut his hair.6 In response to Ms. Kelly and Ms. Romero’s March 26, 2010 ultimatum, I proposed a reasonable solution that would allow me to continue to do my work and respect my sincerely held religious beliefs by offering to wear a Positive Air Powered Respirator (“PAPR”).  A PAPR is a mask that covers the face more extensively and is more conducive for a person with facial hair to use than the standard N-95 mask.  At first, Ms. Kelly and Mr. Martinez refused to consider a PAPR as a solution.

I followed up with Ms. Kelly, Ms. Romero, Mr. Martinez, and Dr. Bajema (the service medical director) about the prospect of using a PAPR, and they detailed the following concerns:

1. It would take too long to put on.
2. It would require two people to put on.
3. It would prevent me from using a stethoscope while wearing it.

These concerns made it clear to me that none of them had actually seen a PAPR even though I knew that Espanola Hospital had four PAPRs abandoned in a storage space located in a garage.  After I explained that their concerns were unwarranted, they eventually agreed to a test of a PAPR to see if it would provide protection and allow me to care for patients.  At this time, Mr. Martinez sent an email out to staff announcing that implementation of the facial hair prohibition in the uniform policy would be delayed.

I retrieved a PAPR from the storage closet and had to clean the PAPR because it was covered in dust.  Administrators did not know of the existence of the four PAPRs in an Espanola Hospital storage space.  In fact, very few employees knew of the existence of the PAPRs as there was never any training, planning, or instruction on the use of PAPRs in case of an emergency.  I submitted to the PAPR test on April 2, 2010 in the presence of Dr. Bajema, Mr. Martinez and EVEMS employees.

Per a memo Dr. Bajema wrote immediately following the test, I was able to don the PAPR in 26 seconds, do it alone, and the PAPR did not hinder the use of a stethoscope.  This memo was sent to Mr. Martinez, Ms. Kelly, Ms. Romero, and me.  Given the clear efficacy of the PAPR, it seemed as if this situation had been resolved.  Initially, when I informed administrators about the PAPRs in the storage space there was not a problem with my use of the on-hand PAPR and it seemed to be a perfect resolution.  However, in a meeting on Thursday, April 8, 2010 Ms. Kelly again stated the policy was no facial hair and “if [Mr.  Khalsa] chooses to have facial hair, he chooses not to work here.” During this period, Ms. Kelly and Ms. Romero also retaliated against me for reporting religious discrimination.  On or about May 5, 2010, Mr. Martinez allegedly wrote me up for missing a meeting that had been scheduled on such short notice I did not have time to rearrange my schedule so that I could attend.  Later, however, Mr. Martinez disclosed the true motivation for the write-up, explaining that Ms. Romero and Ms. Kelly had pressured him to write me up because they were angry that I sent a letter to administration detailing frustrations with the treatment of Sikhs at Presbyterian.  And Mr. Martinez implied that I would have never been written up if I had not sent the letter complaining of discrimination.  Mr. Martinez went on to add that he knew how I felt because he was once discriminated against at the Los Alamos Fire Department as one of the few Hispanics who worked there, and he advised me to “keep [my] head down and do [my] job and [the discrimination] would go away.” For months, I worked with the threat of termination hanging over me.  Suddenly and inexplicably, management informed me that it had reversed its “no facial hair” policy, but the on-hand PAPRs were for emergency room use only, and I would have to purchase my own PAPR at a cost of at least $800.00. This offer was made in direct contrast of what I understand OSHA policy to be, which is that an employer must provide all necessary respiratory equipment.  My facial hair is fundamental to my religion and a PAPR, in this instance, is necessary to accommodate my beard.  Although Presbyterian offered to set up a payment plan in order to assist me in the costly purchase, this offer was wholly insufficient given the remarkable history of discrimination and retaliation against me, including the recent insistence that I shave my beard, and Presbyterian’s complete failure to discipline those responsible for the discrimination.  This offer served as yet another insult in a long line and convinced me that Presbyterian had no intention of truly addressing religious discrimination in the workplace.

Since I put to rest the concerns surrounding the use of a PAPR it became clear that management is motivated by a discriminatory purpose rather than safety concerns.  First, I was told I had to 5 cut my beard or lose my job.  When provided with a reasonable alternative to accommodate my sincerely held religious beliefs, human resources fabricated concerns with the use of the PAPR.  After demonstrating that the use of a PAPR would not impede my job duties, human resources introduced a new impediment to my continued employment and demanded that I purchase expensive equipment.  I worked competently as an upstanding paramedic at Presbyterian for nine years with a beard and a respirator that was adequate for every prior administration, and it is clear that this new requirement was imposed to discriminate and retaliate against me.

Given Presbyterian management ignored numerous and ongoing disparaging remarks about Sikhs.  Supervisors acknowledged religious discrimination, failed to adequately investigate complaints of religious discrimination, and took no corrective action.  Management ignored vandalism of Sikh employee property and implemented policies targeting Sikh employees.  Supervisors retaliated against me for reporting discrimination.  And, after all of the other Sikh employees had been fired or left, Presbyterian repeatedly told me that if I did not shave my beard or purchase expensive equipment to accommodate my beard I would be terminated.  The environment at Presbyterian was so intolerable that I was forced to resign.

Signature of Affiant, Sahaj Khalsa SUBSCRIBED and sworn to before me this 5th day of May 2011.

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