She says she endured religious bias at AT&T, which plans to appeal the jury’s verdict
Her face framed by a white scarf covering her head and hair — considered “a private part” for Muslim women — Susann Bashir grew sad Friday afternoon recalling her final encounter with a former boss.
She said she had already endured years of harassment by co-workers and had started pursuing a religious discrimination case against her employer when the supervisor, during a routine meeting in his office, snatched her scarf and exposed her hair.
Bashir sued, and this week a Jackson County jury awarded her $5 million in punitive damages against Southwestern Bell/AT&T, where she worked as a fiber optics network builder for more than 10 years.
Bashir said she endured religious discrimination nearly every day of the last three years she worked in the company’s downtown Kansas City office.
AT&T said Friday that it disagrees with the verdict and plans to appeal. AT&T is a “nationally recognized leader in workforce diversity and inclusion,” a spokesman said.
The amount Bashir stands to receive will be much less than $5 million, however, because Missouri law caps such awards at five times the actual damage amount plus attorney fees.
The jury awarded Bashir $120,000 in lost wages and other actual damages. Attorney fees will be determined later by the judge, said Amy Coopman, Bashir’s lawyer.
Thursday’s overall award appears to be the largest jury verdict for a workplace religious discrimination case in Missouri history, Coopman said.
The previous largest such verdict came in 2009, when Mohamed Alhalabi, an Arab-American Muslim, was awarded $811,949 in St. Louis County Circuit Court in a case against the Missouri Department of Natural Resources.
That same year a Jonesboro, Ark., jury ordered AT&T to pay $1.3 million to two former employees fired for attending a Jehovah’s Witnesses convention.
Bashir was living in North Kansas City in 2005 when she converted to Islam. According to court documents, that’s when her troubles at AT&T began. Just months before she converted, she had been commended in the company newsletter for doing good work, she said.
In court documents, Bashir said her work environment became hostile when co-workers made harassing comments about her religion and referred to her hijab as “that thing on her head.”
“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.”
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 said, she complained to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in March 2008 and it launched an investigation.
Bashir said that made some workers angry. The final encounter with her boss “happened after the EEOC investigation had started,” she said.
Bashir said she was so stressed that she was unable to return to work. She asked that her boss be removed or that she be transferred, but neither happened. After she did not return to work for nine months, she was fired from her $70,000-a-year job.
“By firing me, they stole my ability to work at a job I liked,” Bashir said.
Bashir said the entire incident was mentally and physically taxing for her and tore her family apart. She is going through a divorce. In October, she moved with her daughter to Anchorage, Alaska, where she is an apartment manager.
“I have mixed feelings,” Bashir said. “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 said she hopes her case will make other employers more sensitive and quicker to respond to complaints like hers.
“I hope others who get discriminated against won’t feel so vulnerable,” she said. “They will know they can speak up.”
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