A Bethesda insurance company, citing an "error in judgment," apologized yesterday to three Jewish employes who were fired for refusing to work on Yom Kippur and offered to reinstate them.
"We simply recognized we made a mistake," said Hugh Aitken, a senior vice president of the Eastern Indemnity Co. of Maryland. "A decision was made Wednesday to notify the employes that they would be reinstated with no loss in wages, seniority or other benefits."
The company announced yesterday it has changed its policy governing personal leave days for all employes and will now allow two days annually that workers may take for any reason.
"Hopefully, this will avoid any further misunderstanding," Aitken said. He said that the firing was not the result of religious bias but merely "pure adherence to stated corporate policy."
Aitken said company officials sent hand-delivered letters to each of the fired employes and also tried to reach them by telephone Wednesday. Two of the three employes reached yesterday by The Washington Post said they had not decided whether to return to the firm.
Jay N. Luber, the company's accounting manager and one of the three dismissed employes, said he prayed for the firm's president, Graham Perkins, at Yom Kippur services yesterday.
Luber said he asked God to forgive Perkins "because I think he did something wrong, not only to me but to a lot of people."
Luber received a dismissal letter Wednesday that cited "poor attitude and performance" but made no reference to the religious holiday. Aitken said the letter was sent shortly after Luber informed Perkins that he would not work on Yom Kippur and was told he would be fired.
According to Aitken, Perkins told Luber that more was involved in his dismissal than his refusal to work on the holiday. Luber was described by company board member Francis Burch, former Maryland attorney general, as "a dissident voice within the organization" who was "critical" of certain office practices.
The invitation to return to work was given in spite of the company's dissatisfaction with Luber, according to Aitken. Company officials said they had no complaints about the other fired workers, Stephen J. Litt and Mindy C. Feldman.
Perkins decided to fire the employes based on a company policy that allowed leave for only six designated holidays, including Christmas but not Jewish holidays. Perkins, in Texas on business, reversed his decision at 9:15 a.m. Wednesday, according to Aitken, two hours before the employes held a press conference decrying the company's actions.
The company says it offered Litt, an underwriting trainee, his job back at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday when he telephoned to inquire about a calculator he had left in his office.
Litt, one of five Jewish employes in the 13-person office, said yesterday the offer came an hour after his firing, but he "couldn't tell if it was serious or not."
Shortly after that Wednesday conversation, Litt appeared at a press conference at the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith with his two fired colleagues. League attorneys said the law requires employers to make "reasonable accommodations" to allow employes to observe religious holidays. The three workers said they had offered to make up the lost time by working Saturdays or after hours on other days.
Burch, the company board member, said at a press conference in the firm's Bethesda board room that company President Perkins had "made a bad judgment and recognized it and corrected it" before there was any publicity. The company refused to comment on the incident until yesterday, after a meeting of its board of directors.
Aitken, who said he had disagreed with the corporate policy and supported the employes' requests for leave, explained that Perkins reversed the firing because of "the intensity of the feelings of the individuals" involved.
The intensity of feelings surrounding the issue was also expressed in numerous phone calls Aitken said he received from persons outside the firm. He said one caller identified himself as a member of the Jewish Defense League and said he had planted a bomb in the office and personally threatened Aitken. Police searched the office and found no bomb.
"I have personally handled every phone call," Aitken said. "I have learned some new words, and some new phrases."
Also contributing to this story was Washington Post staff writer Saundra Saperstein.