CAIRO - A Kansas City Muslim woman has been awarded $5 million in punitive damages by a jury who found the telecommunications giant AT&T created a "hostile work environment" after her conversion to Islam in 2005.
I have mixed feelings, Susann Bashir, a fiber optics network builder for more than 10 years in AT&T, told Kansas City Star on Friday, May 4.
I'm happy not to be reporting to that management structure. But it's hard in this economy to find a job with that level of compensation.
I didn't want to lose my job, because I felt I was doing good work.
Bashir's problems started back in 2005 when her conversion to Islam from Christianity turned the entire work environment hostile.
Harassment began as co-workers made harassing comments about her religion and referred to her hijab as that thing on her head.
Bible verses were left on her desk. Co-workers asked if she was going to blow up the building and called her a towelhead and a terrorist.
Bashir said she called an employee help line in March 2005 and asked that sensitivity training be provided for her co-workers.
It was a worthless call, she said. Nothing ever changed.
When the harassment continued, she complained to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in March 2008 and it launched an investigation.
Years of harassments capped when her supervisor, angered by the EEOC investigation, snatched her scarf and exposed her hair.
I was shocked. I thought, What is going on?' she said during an interview at her lawyer's Kansas City office.
Nobody ever cared what I wore before. Nobody ever cared what religion I was before.
Just months before she converted, she had been commended in the company newsletter for doing good work, she said.
Unable to return to work, Bashir asked that her boss be removed or that she be transferred, but neither happened.
Nine months later, she was fired in 2010 from her $70,000-a-year job.
By firing me, they stole my ability to work at a job I liked, Bashir said.
After several days of hearing testimony and deliberation, a jury in Jackson County Circuit Court on Thursday ordered AT&T to pay $5 million in punitive damages on top of $120,000 in actual damages.
The Kansas Muslim woman praised the court decision as offering vulnerable workers a voice against discrimination.
I hope others who get discriminated against won't feel so vulnerable, she told Kansas Star.
They will know they can speak up.
But, AT&T spokesman Marty Richter said the company would appeal.
"AT&T is a nationally recognized leader in workforce diversity and inclusion, something in which we take great pride. We disagree with the verdict and plan to appeal," Richter said, Reuters reported.
Amy Coopman, Bashir's lawyer, said the jury award was "monumental" to Bashir, but said it had little impact on AT&T, a multi-billion-dollar global corporation.
"The company has an excellent written policy," said Coopman.
"If they had just followed the policy none of this would have happened."
Bashir's case is not new in the American courts as American Muslims have been facing growing workplace discrimination.
According to federal data, a record number of Muslim workers are complaining from facing employment discrimination, with Muslims making up one-quarter of the 3,386 religious discrimination claims filed with the EEOC last year.
The rising number of Muslims facing discrimination exceeds even the amount filed in the year after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Muslim workers filed a record 803 bias claims in the year ended Sept. 30, 2009. That was up 20 percent from the previous year and up nearly 60 percent from 2005.
Muslim rights groups also say they have received a surge in complaints recently, suggesting that 2010's figure will set another record.
Though there are no official estimates, the US is home to from 7-8 million Muslims.