Not kosher: salon owner in trouble for not allowing Jewish employee to work on Saturday

Professional hairdresser tools.
Professional hairdresser tools. Stock photo from iStock/Getty Images.

In a case out of Quebec, with an ironic twist, an employee accused his employer of not respecting his wish not to follow a religious custom.

A Jewish hair stylist alleges he was unfairly dismissed by his Jewish employer for refusing to observe the traditional day of Shabbat, which is the Jewish resting day and falls on Saturdays.

In December of 2012, Richard Zilberg filed a human rights complaint against Spa Orazen. The complaint was filed with the Quebec Human Rights Commission, and supported by the organization Research Action on Race Relations.

Spa Orazen had employed Zilberg during the fall of 2011 and onwards where he worked an average of 30 hours per week. Initially, he worked Saturdays until he alleges that Iris Gressy, his boss, suggested to him he shouldn’t be working Saturdays due to his faith.

As Saturday was the busiest day for the salon, Zilberg did not want to give up his Saturday shift. However, in July of 2012 Gressy allegedly stopped scheduling Zilberg for Saturday shifts – even though, according to Zilberg, non-Jewish employees were given Saturday shifts with no problems.

Zilberg did not like the fact that his Saturday shifts were taken away from him. He told some of his clients that he wasn’t allowed to work on Saturdays anymore and they, in turn, complained to the owner. After an argument about the Saturday shifts, Gressy fired Zilberg in August of 2015.

The firing incensed Zilberg because he felt that he shouldn’t be told how to practice his faith by his boss. Zilberg told a conference called by the Centre for Research Action on Race Relations: “I come from a long line of Jewish people and I love my faith but it is 2015 and I can choose how I want to practice.”

The Quebec Human Rights Commission found there was enough evidence for the complaint to go ahead. The commission wanted Gressy to pay Zilberg $17,500 in damages and another $2500 in punitive damages.

However, Gressy tells a different story. Gressy told the Montreal Gazette that Zilberg was fired for being irresponsible, not because he wanted to work on Saturdays.

Gressy steadfastly refuses to pay and said she would fight this false accusation all the way to court – and it looks like this is exactly where this case is heading. Gressy had until October 23 to pay the damages in order to settle the case and avoid going to court.

Gressy may have problems fighting this complaint in court though, since the commission has already decided there is enough evidence to validate the complaint.

Plain and simple, you cannot tell another person how to practice their faith in Canada. Specifically in Quebec, the Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms of Quebec, Charte des droits et libertés de la personne, states in s. 10:

“Every person has a right to full and equal recognition and exercise of his human rights and freedoms, without distinction, exclusion or preference based on race, colour, sex, pregnancy, sexual orientation, civil status, age except as provided by law, religion, political convictions, language, ethnic or national origin, social condition, a handicap or the use of any means to palliate a handicap.”

Exercise of human rights and freedoms also includes choosing not to practice one’s religion. Furthermore, one can definitely practice how one chooses, as long as it doesn’t infringe upon the rights and well-being of others.

Moreover, being fired for not observing a religious holiday is not only a human rights issue, but also an employment law issue.

The Quebec Employment Standards Commission, Commission des Normes du Travail, has very specific criteria for dismissing an employee. Those include:

  • misconduct
  • bad attitude
  • lack of skills
  • insufficient performance
  • incompetence.

In a case where the employee believes that the dismissal was “not made for good and sufficient cause,” he or she can forward a grievance to the employment commission.

The problem for Zilberg is that the employee must have worked for the business for at least two years, and it doesn’t look like Zilberg even reached a year. This may be why he turned to the human rights commission instead.

The bottom line is this: you can’t force your religious beliefs on your employees, whether they’re part of your religious group or not. The freedom to do something also includes the freedom not to do something.

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