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Va. man sues EPA for religious discrimination


By Eric Fingerhut
Jewish Telegraphic Agency
January 11, 2001

WASHINGTON, Jan. 11 — A former attorney at the Environmental Protection Agency is charging that he faced disciplinary action at the agency simply for trying to observe the High Holy Days and Passover.
The allegation of religious discrmination is one of a number of charges in the discrmination complaint Alexandria resident Steven Spiegel filed against the EPA last month. Spiegel claims that because of his ``whistleblower" efforts to inform the public about the agency's ``sick building" syndrome, the EPA used his religion and his disability to retaliate against him.
Spiegel filed a formal discrimination complaint last month. An EPA spokesperson declined to comment on the specifics of the case. She said that the agency acknowledged receiving the complaint last month, but had not yet decided whether to investigate it.
Spiegel, who was dismissed from the EPA last summer after 16 years with the agency, said he had regularly taken off for Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and the first two days of Passover since he began working at the EPA in 1984.
Generally, Spiegel said that he followed government policy on religious observance by working overtime to make up for the time missed for the holidays.
But everything changed at Passover 1998. Even though prior to the holiday he said he had been given permission by the agency to make up the time he would miss during the following six months, his supervisor demanded when he returned to work that the time be made up within two weeks.
If he could not do that, Spiegel was told he would be charged with being absent without leave (AWOL). He ended up using annual leave time instead.
But the situation became more contentious. Well before the High Holy Days later that year, Spiegel submitted a schedule to make up his planned religious absence time. He was informed that the schedule was unacceptable shortly before the holiday, and when he returned, he was charged with AWOL and the agency issued two reprimands of his conduct.
The EPA continued to deny Spiegel's requests for time off for religious holidays the next year. He submitted a schedule in February, in which he would have worked overtime in advance of Passover in order to make up for time missed, but Spiegel said that request was denied the day before Passover and he was once again forced to take annual leave. The other alternative was to be charged as AWOL once again, Spiegel said. A similar situation arose at the High Holidays that year.
According to the Office of Personnel Management, government agencies ``shall ... afford the employee the opportunity to work compensatory overtime" either before or after the religious holiday to make up for time taken off for religous observance, to the extent that it ``does not interfere with the efficient accomplishment of the agency's mission."
Spiegel said that he was never informed as to why his requests were being denied.
Spiegel believes that the EPA's conduct is directly related to his efforts to inform the public about the agency's ``sick building." He said he was ``one of many employees who were injured in the late 1980s by toxic indoor air" in the EPA's Waterside Mall office building.
Although the windows in the building didn't open and the facility had only a ``5 percent fresh air intake," Spiegel said that renovations were done to the building during work hours. This work released contaminants and molds into the air, leaving according to Spiegel a couple hundred people permanently sick.
Spiegel said he acquired multiple chemical sensitivity in 1989 and is now susceptible to adverse reactions from even low levels of chemicals found in an office environment, such as paint thinner, chlorine and other industrial products. He made arrangements to work from home as an enforcement attorney in 1991, and telecommuted until he was terminated.
The EPA said Spiegel was fired because of unsatisfactory performance; Spiegel claims that his performance was affected by a serious medical condition for which he needed surgery.
``They were trying to provoke me into giving them a reason to fire me [by using my religious observance]," said Spiegel. ``When that didn't work, they fired me when I got ill."
The EPA allegedly wanted to get rid of Spiegel because he began publicizing what he believes is the EPA's role in creating his disability. He appeared in the 1997 documentary EPA POISONS EPA: My Sister's Story, which featured another former EPA attorney who suffered from the same illness, and he also worked with the CBS News program 60 Minutes on its 1999 report ``The Sick Building Syndrome."
EPA employees still work in the ``sick building," although the agency has removed the carpet, which was a contributor to the poor air quality, according to Spiegel. Employees are allowed to work elsewhere if that building makes them ill, and the agency has two other offices in the District.
Spiegel and some other EPA employees also met with the staff of the House Science Committee in October 1999 to discuss discrimination and retaliation at the EPA. Spiegel is the only EPA employee to allege religious discrimination, but others have charged the agency with racial and sexual discrimination.
After this meeting, said Spiegel, the pressure from his supervisors became even more intense, culminating in his termination the follwing year.
Spiegel's lawyer, Bruce Terris of Terris, Pravlik & Millian in the District, said that unless the EPA denies them, ``the facts [Spiegel] alleges make out a case for religious discrimination.''
Terris pointed out that there is an extensive e-mail record of the communication between Spiegel and his supervisors involving the matters at issue.
Terris emphasized that requested absences for religious observance are treated differently than other absences, and that the government cannot force an employee to take annual leave.
The EPA has six months to act on the complaint. If it does not take action, or if Spiegel is unhappy with the action it takes, he can then take the complaint to federal court, which Terris said is likely.


© JTA Inc., 2000. May not be reproduced without written permission
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