Dana Harris won't quit.
Ever since she began working at the East Liberty Shop N' Save grocery store, she believes she's been discriminated against by store management because of her religion. As a Sunni Muslim, she must pray at certain hours of the day, she can't be touched by a man other than her husband and she must dress so as not to draw attention to her body's dimensions.
However, since working at Shop N' Save, Harris says she's not been allowed to take breaks to pray, has been touched disrespectfully by male employees and has been forced to tuck her shirt into her pants, which would accentuate her body in a way that violates her religious code.
As one of the first persons hired at the grocery store when it opened in March, Harris says problems began at her interview, when she was asked if she were Muslim and would have to wear her head garb while working. Harris had worked as a cashier for several weeks when she began training to become a front-end manager. When she asked her training supervisor if she could break during one day to prepare for her prayer, she says the supervisor declined and made a scene by raising her voice in front of customers.
After reporting the incident to the store's human-resources office, Harris says, the male security guards began touching her disrespectfully - "rubbing my shoulder and arm," she claims.
Her manager training was not resumed, although she has been allowed to wear her head garb. When she asked human-resource personnel about the training, Harris says, she was told it had been stopped because they didn't want her religion or prayers to interfere with her work.
Harris has filed complaints with Shop N' Save's in-store and corporate human-resources departments as well as the local Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Filed on Aug. 10, the complaint says the manager was "screaming" at Harris in front of the store's customer-service office about her desire to take a break to pray. "I was pulled from training because of my religion," Harris also wrote.
Shop N' Save staff approached for comment or eyewitness testimony about the alleged incidents say they are not allowed to talk to the press. More than half a dozen requests for comment from Shop N' Save's local corporate offices, made over most of a week, were not returned. The final request was forwarded by the company to Lynn High in Minnesota, a spokesperson for the regional headquarters of Supervalu, the grocery chain's parent company, on Sept. 26. High did not return calls to CP before press time.
The Islamic Council of Greater Pittsburgh Anti-Discrimination Committee (IPAD), on whose executive committee Harris serves, has collected almost 300 signatures for a petition decrying alleged discrimination and harassment on the part of the grocery store. It asks for "a written assurance that Dana Harris or any other employees associated with her will not be harassed or retaliated against for bringing her complaint to the management." The petition was delivered on Sept. 17 to the store's manager.
Harris has never stopped working as a cashier there. "You can't be in the fight if you're not in the fight," she says. Her lawyers and IPAD staff also advised her to remain on the job.
Quitting her job wouldn't allow her to address the root of the problem, says Harris. Her continued presence "shows people that she's still going to keep struggling every day and stand up for her rights," says Saleh Waziruddin, IPAD chair. "People at Shop N' Save and people in the community need to see that."
Proper resolution of the incident, says Harris, would mean a written and public apology. Meanwhile, Harris says she still has not been given break time to pray and is scheduled to work on days her religion would prevent her from working, even though she says she has informed the store of this stricture.
Harris performs as a spoken-word artist under the name Souljourner Truth. Her 17-year-old daughter, Bianca, and her mother, Rose Luster, also work at the store. Following Dana Harris' complaint, Bianca was fired after being accused of having a register short of cash. That action has since been reversed, Harris says, and the accusation withdrawn. Bianca filed a complaint with EEOC on Aug. 10, the same day as her mother's complaint, alleging that she was discriminated against in part "after management was informed I was related to Dana Harris, who is a Muslim." The Shop N' Save corporate manager alleged by Harris to have led the investigation into her daughter's case did not return calls to CP.
These allegations come as Supervalu announced, on Sept. 6, that it would be selling the East Liberty grocery store, along with 19 other Pittsburgh-area Shop N' Saves, due to sales slumps.
Waziruddin and Harris say they have had meetings with Shop N' Save executives in which store personnel reportedly promised to address the Muslims' concerns. In May, they say, the pair met with Nicole March, the human-resources manager for Shop N' Save, after which Harris says she was led to expect an apology and the resumption of her manager training. Four months later, she says, the only apology she's gotten was from a manager on behalf of the security guards.
Waziruddin says IPAD has been unable to meet again with Shop N' Save or Supervalu.
"We haven't been able to get anything in writing from them, not even to acknowledge that they met with us," he says.
Waziruddin and IPAD first came to prominence defending Getu Berhanu Tewolde, an Ethiopian Christian who was arrested in 2002, during a period of post-9/11 paranoia, when Tewolde's fellow passengers on a Greyhound bus boarding Downtown couldn't understand his accented speech and apparently mistook him for a Muslim worthy of suspicion.
Concludes Waziruddin: "The feedback we've [had] from people, especially in the African-American Muslim community, is that they've been through this kind of discrimination before and didn't know that they could do anything about it, and now they're thinking they should come out about this as well."