WASHINGTON – When Zainab Al-Suwaij's interviewer asked in a displeased tone if she wore her head scarf every day,Al-Suwaij knew her job interview was over.
Many Muslim women wear hijabs in accordance with their faith,but these practices can restrict their chances to find jobs.
Now she is executive director of the American Islamic Congress,a group she co-founded to advocate for women's equality and interfaith understanding.
Often thought of as a women's issue because of maternity leave,child care and equal pay,the concept of workplace flexibility applies to Americans of all demographics.
“Workplace flexibility isn't just a women's issue. It's an issue that affects the well-being of our families and the success of our businesses,” President Obama said at a March 31 forum that launched the campaign. “It affects the strength of our economy – whether we'll create the workplaces and jobs of the future that we need to compete in today's global economy.”
A public policy initiative at Georgetown University Law School,the campaign develops recommendations to increase workplace flexibility for all Americans.
The panel included experts on workplace flexibility issues representing Seventh-day Adventists,Judaism,Islam and Sikhism.
Issues surrounding Sabbath and holiday observations,as well as religious restrictions to grooming and clothing can cause unnecessary anxiety for employees,the panel said.
“Religion forms for people of faith a core part of their identity,” said panelist Richard T. Foltin,director of national and legislative affairs for the American Jewish Committee. “They should not be required to leave that identity at the workplace door.”
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 has been amended to require employers to provide accommodations for employees.
Oftentimes those accommodations are inadequate,Foltin said.
Panelist Amardeep Singh,director of national programs for the Sikh Coalition,said there have been cases against airlines and rental car companies in which the accommodations to Muslim and Sikh employees were discriminatory.
Because employees' hijabs,turbans and beards did not match the corporate uniform standard,the corporation said the employees could work with equal pay and benefits,but out of public view.
Singh does not call that an accommodation.
“I would argue that completely undermines Title VII,” Singh said. “It was meant to bring people together in the mainstream.”
Barry W. Bussey,director of legislative affairs for the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists,said he receives e-mails from people asking for help because employers disregard Sabbath observances.
As in the Jewish faith,Seventh-day Adventists do not work from sundown Friday until sundown Saturday.
In one case,Sears refused to hire appliance repairmen because they could not work on Saturdays. Sears claimed most people wanted appliances repaired on the weekend,but records showed the highest number of repairs occurred on Tuesdays,Bussey said.
While some religious groups still face discrimination,progress has been made,Singh said.
In 1981,the military prohibited Sikhs from serving because turbans and facial hair were not conducive to uniformity,Singh said. But in November 2009,the U.S. Army decided to accommodate two Sikhs,a doctor and dentist.
Capt. Tejdeep Singh Rattan was allowed to wear his turban and maintain his beard,both of which are important to his faith.
“If the military can make the accommodation,then certainly the everyday workplace can too,” Foltin said.
However,the military has yet to change the policy entirely,Singh said. While these accommodations were made,they are determined on an individual basis.
Workplace Flexibility 2010 co-founder Katie Corrigan said she hopes the campaign will increase education and legislation about these issues.
“Legislation is crucial here,not because we need more lawsuits,but because we need fewer,” Foltin said.