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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
Agency is charging that he
faced disciplinary action at the agency simply for trying to observe the
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
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
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
Spiegel said that he was never informed as to why his requests were
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
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
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
``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
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
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
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.