A 65-year-old dishwasher at a Silver Spring pub claims he was fired and then denied unemployment benefits because he took two days off for the Jewish New Year in September.
Earl Strauss said he had been working for about a week at The Corner Pub, 10111 Sutherland Rd., when he asked the manager for permission to take off Sept. 16 and 17 to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, one of Judaism's major holidays.
"I called him up and he said they're open seven days a week and if everybody took off they'd have to close. So I took off," said Strauss, who was earning the minimum wage of $3.50 an hour at the pub.
Then when he applied for unemployment benefits, a claims examiner for Maryland's Unemployment Administration ruled he was guilty of misconduct, and denied him $37 per week in benefits for a penalty period of seven weeks. The form states that benefits were denied because "he took off two days without permission during the Jewish holidays."
The Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith is protesting both the firing and the loss of benefits and is representing Strauss in his appeal for a refund of the benefits denied him while he was unemployed. Strauss said he recently found another job with a cleaning firm.
"This is shocking," said a prepared statement by the ADL, "First a man is fired from his job in complete violation of his constitutional rights, for asking for time off to practice his religious beliefs. Then this outrageous action is affirmed by a state examiner."
Maryland law prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion, as well as race, sex, national origin, and requires that employers make a "reasonable accommodation" of their employes' religious beliefs, according to Ruth Marcus, of the state Human Relations Commission. But, said Marcus, that portion of the law applies only to firms with 15 or more employes, and Maryland law gives wide latitude to employers who wish to fire workers not covered by specific employment contracts.
Maryland officials said, however, that the law clearly states that unemployment benefits cannot be denied if a person is fired for practicing his religious beliefs, as long as the employe is guilty of no other misconduct such as failing to give adequate notice.
But they say they must await a full hearing of the case to determine if Strauss was wrongly denied benefits.
"The law is clear; what's unclear in this case are the facts," said John Roberts, an attorney for the Unemployment Insurance Administration. "Apparently he either took off Rosh Hashanah without giving notice, or maybe he didn't give enough notice, or at least he took off without permission," he said.
William Hewitt, an attorney for The Corner Pub, said, "We plan to go to the hearing and we plan to contest the matter." Hewitt agreed that Strauss asked for permission to take off work from the pub but said, "Nobody fired him."
"They simply said, they're a restaurant and they're open seven days a week and they need to have everybody there. He didn't come in the two days, nor did he come in thereafter. But nobody fired him. He didn't come back and he was replaced."
Strauss said he did not return because "they told me not to come in. They said if you don't come in Monday, don't come back."