Sikh MTA Workers Relieved They Can Wear Turbans Freely
NEW YORK—For the last seven years, MTA station agent Inderjit Singh has dreaded going to work.
A cheerful Sikh, the agent said the post-9/11 years were especially stressful because he was constantly hounded by superiors to put the MTA logo on his turban.
“It was a big emotional despair,” said Singh, who has worked as station agent in different parts of the city for the last 18 years.
“Every day I would go to work and I would have this fear that [MTA officials] will come to me and say why are you doing this [wearing a turban without an MTA logo]?”
Last week, however, things turned around for Singh, 56, and many other Sikhs like him who worked in the agency.
After a seven-year legal battle with the MTA, the Sikh Coalition and the Transit Authority reached a settlement in Federal Court on May 30, that would allow Sikh MTA workers like Singh to wear their turbans freely at work, without an MTA logo.
But the workers will continue to have to match their turbans with their blue uniform under the policy, which is expected to impact about a dozen Sikh workers at the transit authority, the Coalition said.
As part of the settlement, eight Sikh and Muslim employees, including Singh, of Parlin, NJ, would also be paid $184,500 in damages, the organization said.
The MTA’s policy was born in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, when the Transit Authority felt that that seeing MTA workers with turbans or head-scarves might scare nervous New Yorkers, the Sikh Coalition said.
The agency said that all Sikh and Muslim MTA workers would have to brand their religious headdress with the MTA corporate logo or stay out of public view, according to the Coalition and published reports.
“My supervisors started coming and harassing me…telling me ‘you have to put a logo’ [on the turban],” Singh described. But he told his supervisor: “Sorry, I cannot do that. It’s against my religion, against my belief.”
Sikh men generally don't cut their hair and are required by their religion to wear a turban, Singh said.
Originally from Jalandhar, in Punjab, Singh, who has a son who is studying to be a doctor, has worn a turban or “Pugdi” all his life — buying the eight meters of cloth required to fashion a turban from stores in Jackson Heights or procuring them from relatives in India.
For the devout Singh, the "Pugdi" is part of his life. When the MTA asked him to put a logo on his religious headdress, Singh said he felt both offended and singled-out for the policy.
“Side-by-side, I have people wearing Yarmulke,” he said. “We also have people wearing baseball caps, no one bothered them.”
Singh, who has worked as a customer service agent at different stations in the city, including the busy Port Authority and Grand Central station, said his turban never prevented any passengers from seeking his assistance or asking for directions.
“Every day, I help thousands of customers,” said Singh. “You should see the crowds in some of these stations.”
He added that each time he was asked by a senior MTA official about branding his turban, he had fill out an application for a “religious accommodation.” “There is a provision like that,” he said. “But the MTA refused to accommodate us.”
While Singh was never denied any promotions or relegated away from straphangers, he lived in the constant fear of being written up for disciplinary action or, worse, be fired for not complying with regulations, he said.
In 2005, Singh joined five other Sikh plaintiffs to file a discrimination suit against the MTA with the help of the Sikh Coalition and the Center for Constitutional Rights. A year earlier, the Justice Department filed its own case in this matter, Singh said.
Last week, the Sikh Coalition and CCR settled with the transit authority, which reverted back to its pre-9/11 turban policy allowing Sikhs to wear a uniform blue turban with no MTA logo.
Straphangers at the 53rd and Lexington Avenue subway station in Manhattan, where Singh works as a station agent, agreed that branding Singh’s turban with a MTA logo was a “non-issue.”
“I don’t care if he wears a turban or a wig,” said Olena Palha, 37, from Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. “Everybody should do their job as best as they can.”
In a statement, the Transit Authority said that its policy was “never animated by religious or ethnic bias.”
For Singh, however, last week's settlement with the MTA has translated into him being able to enjoy the simple pleasures of his job once again, without worrying about religious expression.
“I am happy! I don’t have any stress that somebody will tell you something at your job."