Rights body sides with Jewish hairdresser against Jewish boss

Richard Zilberg, right
Richard Zilberg, right, speaks to the media with Fo Niemi

MONTREAL – The Quebec human rights commission has upheld a Jewish hairdresser’s complaint that he was discriminated against by his Jewish employer because he was forced not to work on Shabbat.

It’s believed to be the first time the commission has ruled on, or possibly even heard, a case of a dispute between parties of the same religion.

Richard Zilberg, who was a stylist and colourist at Spa OraZen in Montreal, went to the Quebec Human Rights and Youth Rights Commission after he was fired allegedly for not complying with the owners’ demand that he cease coming in to work on Friday evenings and Saturdays.

The business is open at that time, but its observant principal owner Iris Gressy, who is named in the complaint, does not work there on Shabbat.

The commission recommended on Oct. 6 that Zilberg be compensated by the spa for damages totalling $20,000 – $12,500 for material damages for loss of income and other hardship, and $5,000 for moral damages. An additional $2,500 was also awarded for punitive damages for intentional violation of his civil rights.

The spa owners did not comply with a subpoena to appear before the commission and did not otherwise respond during its investigation, said Fo Niemi, executive director of CRARR (the Centre for Research-Action on Race Relations, a non-profit organization founded in 1983 to advocate for victims of discrimination and promote tolerance.

The spa did not pay Zilberg the recommended damages by the Oct. 23 deadline, and the case will now go before the Quebec Human Rights Tribunal, which is a court.

Zilberg appeared with Niemi at a Nov. 10 press conference to discuss the case. CRARR has been helping Zilberg navigate the commission process.

“When I as a Jew am discriminated against by another Jew, to the point of losing my job, income and dignity, that is completely intolerable,” Zilberg stated. “There is no excuse for discrimination based on religion, even if that person is of the same faith.”

Zilberg, who has about 30 years experience in hairdressing in Montreal and Ottawa, was hired by the spa in October 2011. He worked an average 30 hours a week, usually including on Saturday, because it was one of the busiest days.

He told the commission that in July 2011 the owners (Gressy had a partner at the time) informed him verbally he was no longer allowed to work on Shabbat because he is Jewish, and Jews are not permitted by their religion to work at that time.

They justified keeping the spa open on Shabbat to him by saying that any profit was given to charity. Non-Jewish employees continued to work as before.

Zilberg, who stressed that he is proud of his Jewish faith, although he is not Shomer Shabbat, said he was shocked and angered by this change in policy. It meant a significant reduction in his working hours as well as an affront to his religious freedom. Nevertheless, he complied in order to keep his job.

He alleges his dismissal a month later was because he expressed his feelings of unfairness to several of the spa’s numerous Jewish customers. He understands that at least one of them then mentioned this disapprovingly to the owners.

The owners, he said, had warned him not to discuss this matter with the clientele and to just say Saturday was now his day off.

He is aware of only one other Jewish employee at the spa during the time he was there, he said, a young woman assisting in the tanning salon. She apparently was also told not to come in on Shabbat, so she quit, he said.

Zilberg said that not only did he lose his job, but also most of his client list. Today, he works at another salon.

He filed the complaint with the commission in December 2012.

Zilberg initially did not know where, or if, he should take action against what he believed was a clear case of discrimination on the basis of religion.

“Deep down I knew this was not right, but I didn’t know the law or what my options were,” he said.

When he learned about the human rights commission through CRARR, he said, he still hesitated to testify against a fellow Jew. He continues to worry today that this may be construed by anti-Semites as Jews fighting among themselves.

Although not observant in the traditional sense, Zilberg said he practises Judaism in his own way and feels that should be respected. Certainly, he thinks an employer should not impose religious beliefs about working hours on an employee, if that employer operates the business during those times.

Zilberg is descended from a long line of religious Jews and his late father was associated with Chabad in Toronto, he said.

“I believe he would have supported me in this,” said Zilberg, who said he personally has always disapproved of discrimination against anyone.

He claimed his dismissal hurt him financially and psychologically, and even affected his health.

He said he agreed to speak out publicly because he wants others to know about their rights and recourse if they are infringed upon.

Niemi, a co-founder of CRARR, said this is the first case of “intrafaith” discrimination he is aware of coming before the commission. It will also be one of the very few cases involving Jewish individuals brought before the tribunal in the last 20 years, Niemi said.

“This case illustrates an employer’s legal obligation not to impose its religious beliefs and practices on an employee, even if the employee is of the same faith,” he said.

The tribunal will likely first try to mediate a settlement between the parties, Niemi said. If that is not reached, the case will go to trial and it will probably be months before a decision is handed down.

Zilberg said he doubts he would go back to work at the spa if they offered him a job, including Saturday hours.