Three Jewish employes at a Bethesda insurance company said yesterday they have been fired for insisting that they be allowed to take today off for Yom Kippur, the Holy Day of Atonement marked by fasting and prayer.
The employes of Eastern Indemnity Co. of Maryland said they had worked under protest on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, 10 days ago. But when they insisted on observing Yom Kippur, considered their religion's most sacred holiday, they said they were given the option of resigning or being fired if they pressed the issue.
"It was very insensitive and callous and showed an utter disregard for our own religious beliefs and feelings," said Jay N. Luber, company accounting manager who said that he, along with assistant underwriter Mindy C. Feldman, was fired Monday night. The third employe, Steven J. Litt, an underwriting trainee, said he was fired Tuesday morning.
The three employes said they all offered to make up the time lost by working Saturdays or later hours on other days, but that their offers and their requests were denied by C. Graham Perkins, company president, either directly or through other executives acting as intermediaries.
"If you take the day off, Eastern Indemnity will ask you to resign or fire you," Litt said he was told by Hugh Aitken, the company's senior vice president. The trio said that Aitken, a retired Marine Corps brigadier general, had argued with Perkins on their behalf.
Perkins was "seriously and honestly out of town" yesterday, according to Aitken, who said company officials would not discuss the firings.
"The corporation is not going to issue any statement, nor are any representatives of the corporation going to answer any questions," he said. "We don't intend to address them at any time."
The employes detailed their charges yesterday at the downtown offices of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai Brith. The alleged firings were characterized as a "classic case of religious discrimination" by Edward N. Leavy, the league's regional director.
Leavy said the league will attempt to negotiate with Eastern Indemnity to have the employes reinstated and guaranteed the right to observe religious holidays. If negotiations fail, he said, his group will take legal action.
Such action might include the filing of formal complaints with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or state and county agencies as well as court action to enjoin such behavior and recover damages, Leavy said. "We're not looking to foment litigation," added Edward Levin, one of two lawyers who have volunteered to work on the case. "We're trying to stop this thing."
Under the 1964 Civil Rights Act, regulations of the EEOC and U.S. Supreme Court decisions, Leavy noted, an employer must make a reasonable accommodation to allow employes to observe religious holidays. Montgomery County and Maryland state laws also prohibit discrimination on the basis of religion, he said.
Because of the Jewish holiday, Montgomery County public schools are closed today -- as they were on Rosh Hashanah -- while county employes wishing to observe Yom Kippur are being allowed to take annual leave for that purpose. Private firms generally follow the same policy, according to Alan Dean, director of the Montgomery County Human Relations Commission.
Indemnity's alleged action was, therefore, "very unusual," he said. "A large percentage of employers try to accommodate people who are Seventh-Day Adventists or Jewish or what have you." The county code requires such "reasonable accommodation," he said, unless the employer can prove "undue hardship."
"From my experience, this is not a typical employer reaction," said Warren Davis, the other volunteer attorney working on the employes' behalf, certainly "not in a large company with any sensitivity to employes."
Indemnity, the discharged workers said, has 13 employes at its headquarters here, five of whom are Jewish, and 17 more in five additional cities. They said the other Jewish employes here did not seek time off for Yom Kippur.
Luber, 29, said he began working for Indemnity in July and enjoyed his job there. Feldman, 20, said she had been told "I had a good future with the company" after she rose from receptionist to underwriting assistant. She described Perkins, the boss, as "generally a nice man." His holiday decree "came as a shock to me," she said.
Feldman said she and Litt were warned three weeks ago that they would be fired or forced to resign if they did not work on the Jewish holidays. On Monday, she said, she told company officials she could not work Thursday and was told to "clean out my desk now."
Luber said he told company officials before Rosh Hashanah that he would reluctantly work on that holiday but that he could not do so on Yom Kippur. The Monday after Rosh Hashanah, he said, Perkins called him into his office "and gave me the following ultimatum: Either work Thursday, Oct. 8, which is Yom Kippur, or resign. I informed Mr. Perkins that Yom Kippur, being the holiest day of the year to me, I could not work on that day. I also refused to resign."
Perkins gave him until 5 p.m. to think about it, Luber said, and when that time came Perkins demanded an answer. "I offered to make up lost time, but the offer was brushed aside," said Luber. "At 5 p.m., Graham Perkins told me I was fired and should clear out my things."