IT HAPPENED TO ME: I Was Fired For Being Jewish When I Was Only 16
I didn’t last more than two months at each of my first two jobs.
At the end of my sophomore year of high school, I got my first job at a discount department store, and I wanted to quit almost immediately. Wearing an ugly vest and arranging bras in order of size as they came back from the fitting rooms just didn’t agree with 16-year-old me. My parents wouldn’t let me quit until I found another job, though, so before the summer was through, I did exactly that.
I was much happier at my second job as a sales associate in a store at the mall. It was a casual, laid-back atmosphere, and my coworkers and customers were all around my age. Even the manager, Mateo*, seemed really cool and young -- you know, for a 20-something.
Things were going really well, and I regularly saw my name in the top three on the “productivity list” posted in the store’s back room. I was working several evenings a week and most weekends, and I hadn’t asked for any days off, unless you count marking on the store calendar two months in advance that I’d probably be unavailable for work on the night of the Alanis Morissette concert.
In fact, it was the first time I officially asked for a day off that marked the end of my employment at this store.
During the last week of September, at the request of my parents, I asked for Yom Kippur off. Although I personally hadn’t settled on my religious beliefs -- who has by 16? -- my parents considered themselves Reform Jews, and they were raised going to Hebrew school and subscribing, like most Jews, to the custom of not attending school or work on Yom Kippur, the day of atonement and widely considered the holiest day on the Jewish calendar.
I was a little nervous to ask for that evening off, but only because it was my first time asking for a day off from work ever. I reminded myself that I was following the company policy of asking a week in advance; that the week before, my coworker Amanda* had asked for Saturday off only 24 hours beforehand -- she said her parents were going to be out of town (whether that meant she couldn’t get a ride or she was going to have a party, I don’t know) -- and how Mateo cheerfully told her it was no problem and he’d find someone to cover her.
About five minutes into my shift that September evening, I told Mateo, “So, I need next Wednesday evening off because of Yom Kippur.”
He immediately dropped his head, started shaking it back and forth, and sighed.
“Marci, I’m gonna have to let you go.”
I thought he was kidding. I laughed nervously and said, “What?”
He didn’t answer immediately. It seemed like he was searching for an explanation he didn’t yet have for his rash, absolutely-not-kidding decision.
“I’ve been covering for so many of you lately,” he finally said. So many of us? This was the first time I’d asked for a day off. And he'd been so happy to accommodate Amanda. He continued, “I haven’t been spending nearly enough time with my wife and dog. It’s unacceptable.”
He had fired me on the spot for requesting an evening off for a Jewish holiday. I didn’t know what to do. I’d never been fired before, let alone for such an unjust reason.
So I quietly cried and, oddly enough, finished my shift, mostly because my mother had just dropped me off and I felt guilty about calling her and asking her to come back and get me.
I didn’t say a word to Mateo for the rest of the evening and said only the bare minimum to customers. He said, “I’m sorry it worked out this way,” as he pulled down the store gate at the end of the night, and I practically ran to the parking lot to find my mother waiting in her car.
As soon as I sat in the passenger seat, I started bawling.
“I got fired,” I blurted out when my mother asked me what was wrong.
“What? Why?” she asked.
“I don’t know what happened,” I said, sobbing. “He told me he had to let me go after I asked for Yom Kippur off.”
I was afraid I‘d be in trouble with my parents; I was embarrassed that I didn't hold onto this job. Instead, my mother said, “We’ll call Diane when we get home.”
Did I mention that my older sister, Diane, is a civil rights and employment attorney?
I was ready to just cry about this for a few hours and move on, but my parents saw the discrimination my naive, young mind couldn’t yet detect. My sister agreed with their outrage, not just because it happened to family, but because she knew, from a professional standpoint, that what had happened was illegal.
The following week, we heard from my cousin that his best friend, working at the very same retail chain at a location in another state, had also been fired when he asked for Yom Kippur off. My family was appalled. It was at that point that I had no choice but to stop feeling sorry for myself and start feeling angry.
So I sued.
Diane went for $25,000, which scared the hell out of me. That was a lot of money, especially to a 16-year-old. But she explained that you always have to aim high; if the company's lawyers thought I'd have a strong case in court, they'd come back with a compromise in order to avoid the possibility of paying a lot more at a judge's discretion.
But none of us really cared about the money; it was truly the principle. I know, a lot of people who sue say that. But a lot of people who sue ask for millions of dollars. We really just wanted them to address what seemed like the beginning of a frightening pattern at their stores.
I don't remember much about the conference call that eventually ensued, other than reiterating to the company's lawyer what had happened. Oh -- and that at one point he said to my sister, "I just think you're this kid's aunt who wants to get her money for college." I thought Diane was going to jump through the phone Ghost Dad-style and give him a stern talking-to.
We ended up settling out of court, which is what we all wanted. I received $5,000. But what really made me proud was that, as a result of my case, the company would create brand-specific nondiscrimination-policy posters to put up in every store alongside state and federal nondiscrimination posters.
And no, the $5,000 didn't go toward college. At least not all of it. My parents and I bought my sister a really nice desk to thank her for work. And I assure you, none of it went toward shopping at that store ever again.