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Turned away: Practicing Muslim and UAlbany student Zahra Shah. Photo by Teri Currie.

Policy or Prejudice?

Local Muslim woman turned away at roller rink after refusing to take off her headscarf

When Zahra Shah showed up to roller skate at Guptill Arena two weeks ago, the last thing that she expected was that she would not be allowed into the rink.

Shah, a University at Albany senior and a practicing Muslim, was told when she visited the popular Latham roller rink on Nov. 24 that in order to be allowed to skate, she had to remove her headscarf.

“I was really surprised,” said Shah. “I tried to explain that I wear my scarf for religious purposes, but the guy at the front door refused to let me skate.”

Shah claimed that the doorman, whom she was not able to identify by name, told her that the arena’s policy prohibiting headscarves (as well as hats, bandanas, etc.) is for insurance reasons: If the garment were to fall off, another skater could trip over it and get hurt. “What really angered me was how he treated me,” said Shah. “After I explained to him why I wear my scarf, he just turned his back and refused to acknowledge me.”

Ayesha Rashied, who was with Shah at the time, insisted that the rink was violating Shah’s religious rights. The two women then asked to speak to a manager, but were told that none was available at the time. The doorman, Shah said, simply explained that those were the rules and there was nothing that that could be done to change them.

“I think we were discriminated against because we are Muslim,” said Shah. “They are just not used to such diversity. If it was a Jewish person with a yarmulke I doubt they would have had the same problem.”

When Shah got home, she immediately called and wrote to Guptill Arena, expressing her disappointment and frustration. She also contacted Campus Action and the New York Civil Liberties Union to get some advice about what had taken place earlier that day. She received a phone call from Tony Labede, a manager at the rink, who apologized for the incident.

“He said that he was sorry,” said Shah, “and that if I brought a note in from my Mosque saying that I wear the scarf for religious purposes, then I could skate. But that seems to go against the so-called strict insurance policy I was originally told about. I mean, if the issue is safety, then how can a note help that?”

She explained that Labede compared wearing a scarf to cowboys who religiously like to wear cowboy hats.

“This is discrimination,” said Shah. “They can’t go on discriminating against people.”

Charles Martin, the general manager of Guptill, said that the whole incident was a big misunderstanding and that he was surprised to hear that Shah was still upset.

“I thought that when Tony called, it had all been cleared up,” said Martin. “The employee at the door that day made a mistake and he did not understand our policy. She does not need a note from her mosque. She can come in and skate anytime.”

But Shah said that is not what she was told on the phone. “If that is what they said, then why would I still be upset?” asked Shah.

While Shah has since received a call from Martin, who reasserted his apology and assured her that she can come back to skate without removing her scarf, she said that she is saddened that it took a barrage of letters from local advocacy groups and phone calls from the press in order for the matter to get cleared up.

“Martin did apologize,” said Shah. “I guess the important thing is that Guptill has either revised its policy or has clarified it to their employees, but I think this is what many Muslims have been facing in the past year, and it is time for a change. These types of misunderstandings should not be taken lightly.”

—Nancy Guerin

Organize That!

Labor representatives claim that a subcontractor to a New York state agency is blocking efforts to unionize

A local labor union continues to clash with a cleaning contractor that won’t grant its employees the right to unionize.

Organizers from the Service Employees International Union 200United have been asking Pegasus Cleaning Corp. to allow a number of its employees—custodial workers at the New York State Department of Labor building in Albany—to unionize. Though 14 of Pegasus’ 30 janitors at the building want labor representation by SEIU 200United, the employer refuses to give its consent.

“If the workers want to unionize,” said Pegasus spokesman Rob Coleman, “they can petition the [National Labor Relations Board] for a vote.”

According to the National Labor Relations Act, an employer must ultimately recognize its employees’ intent to unionize by either granting consent voluntarily or through intervention by a labor board and a certified vote. By not voluntarily recognizing its workers’ wishes, Pegasus has forced the union to petition the labor board, an option that Richard Drucker, a lead organizer with SEIU 200United, said is useless.

“This is a small unit with a lot of turnover,” Drucker said. “And it takes almost three months to petition the labor board for a vote.”

By the time a certified vote could be set up, Drucker said, the employees looking for labor representation might be gone.

Drucker also said his union’s efforts are further stifled since he and other union officials are no longer allowed within the DOL building during the night shift, when the majority of janitors are on the job. “They have all the access and we have none,” Drucker said.

Since October, SEIU 200United has been holding pickets in front of the DOL building demanding that Pegasus recognize the wishes of its workers.

But Coleman denied that his company has been bullying its workers, and said DOL safety regulations, not Pegasus, have kept union officials out of the building.

“They can make arrangements to get into the building, and they can always talk to the people outside the job,” Coleman said.

But Drucker said it’s not easy to contact the workers before or after their shifts. Many of them work two jobs, unable to support a family on janitorial work alone. Workers at Pegasus said they make $8.33 an hour without benefits; union officials said they would raise that to $10.33, a figure that includes a benefit package. It was this offer that sparked the interest of “Len,” a janitor in the DOL building who wished to remain anonymous, fearing repercussions from his employer.

Len, 20, supports his girlfriend and their 2-year-old son on two jobs, including the full-time janitorial position he has held with Pegasus for the past four years. Len said the union wage increase was of great interest to him, as he has yet to receive a raise from Pegasus.

“They just don’t give them out,” said Len. “The owners don’t want to give more money; it’s all about putting money in the boss’ pocket.”

Redd, another janitorial worker in the DOL building (who agreed to use his nickname, but not his real name), said he was interested in hearing what the union was offering as well. Although the union’s offers were enticing—along with the wage increase and benefits package, officials from SEIU 200United promised workers compensation for their time working below the union’s prevailing wage—Redd said he was not looking for union representation.

“They said we could sign a piece of paper for more information,” said Redd. “The next thing we know, it’s a petition we signed for a union. I didn’t want to sign no petition. To have us sign a petition under false pretenses, that’s not right.”

But Drucker said his union has been up front with its intentions toward the janitors, and chalks Redd’s experience up to a miscommunication.

“I had conversations with those folks,” Drucker said. “Either they didn’t hear me or they were persuaded to think otherwise.”

But according to Redd, management has not been pressuring the janitors one way or another. While Redd went on to explain that the union trying to organize the workers has created a lot of confusion for the janitors in the DOL building, Drucker said that has not been his union’s intent.

“If they want to join our union and build a movement, we’ll take them,” said Drucker. “If not, at the point that they say no, we respect that. We don’t want to strong-arm people because that just means that we have a weak union with people who don’t want to be in a union.”

Pegasus’ contract with the DOL is up for renewal on Jan. 1, 2003. Coleman said the contractor will be looking to get raises for its employees in a new contract, but Drucker said that offer is just to counter the union’s, and doubts that Pegasus will give the workers what they deserve.

—Travis Durfee

Down for the Counties

Medicaid costs skyrocket, and counties across New York face fiscal crises

Medicaid is making counties throughout the state of New York fiscally ill, but Albany County Comptroller Michael Conners said he has a proposal that is just what the doctor ordered.

Nearly every New York newspaper in the past two months has dedicated some space to the county tax increases, some of astronomical proportions, that have been dominating budget discussion throughout the state. Locally, Rensselaer, Albany and Schenectady counties are looking at total tax increases of 25, 24 and 12 percent respectively, and the culprit is the same: an increased share of the county budget being devoted to cover the rising costs of Medicaid.

Medicaid is the health insurance program offering benefits to low-income adults, children and families, and indigent seniors living in nursing homes. By and large, these increases in Medicaid expenditures are attributed to two factors: an overall downturn in the economy, putting more people out of work and in need of such services; and a general rise in health-care- related expenses, including prescription drug costs, and the cost of operating hospitals.

But what has been devastating to county budgets is how Medicaid costs are absorbed within the state. New York is one of only four states in the nation, along with North Carolina, Florida and New Hampshire, that makes county governments pay a share of its Medicaid costs. In New York, the federal government picks up 50 percent of Medicaid expenses, and the state and county governments split the remaining costs.

“Medicaid is the largest single mandated program in the county budgets,” said Robert Gregory, executive director of the New York Association of Counties. “The problem is that the counties just pay the bill and don’t have any control over the scope of the program.”

And the scope of the program has expanded dramatically over the past few years, Gregory said. According to numbers provided by NYAC, Medicaid costs absorbed by the counties outside of New York City have increased by 25 percent over the past seven years, with the lion’s share of the increases, 21 percent, coming in the past three years.

Conners said that his plan, giving jobless Medicaid recipients work as home health-care aides to elderly individuals on Medicaid who can no longer care for themselves, attacks the Medicaid problem from two angles.

“It is a cost-containment program,” said Conners. “A long-term goal is to address a great weakness, that there is not a community outreach program for the mentally ill or the elderly. And the poor are now in charge of their own health care.”

And hiring previously unemployed Medicaid recipients as county-employed home health-care aides would make these individuals eligible for the county’s health insurance.

“You say, ‘Hey look, you can handle your health care,’” Conners said. “[Currently] you have a system based on dependence, but this can be a way for people to help themselves. We have a system based on giving people fish. I’d like to see it built on teaching people to fish.”

While it may be more cost-effective to send a home health-care aide into an elderly Medicaid recipient’s home for a few hours a day as opposed to having Medicaid cover nursing-home costs, some have expressed concerns over Conners’ plan.

“The concerns would be, if people are jobless, why are they jobless?” said Mark Dunlea of the New York state Green Party. “Lack of jobs is one thing, but I get suspicious when people are jobless and receiving Medicaid.”

Dunlea said the Green Party advocates a universal or single-payer health-care plan. “Nineteen to 30 percent of health care costs go to private insurers’ profit margins,” Dunlea said. “[A single-payer plan] provides freedom of choice as to who cares for you, it gets rid of private health-care companies, the amount of forms and paperwork you have to fill out. And the doctors will no longer have to think of who is covered by what program to receive what treatment.”

Conners’ plan is not the only proposal circulating in public-finance circles statewide. Gregory said the counties association is calling for a cap on the local share so counties would not have to pay more than they did in 2001. Erie County’s executive has proposed a one-percentage- point increase on the state’s sales tax, and others have asked to raise the state’s personal income tax.

“Expansion of Medicaid services is a mandate to the detriment of other county programs,” Gregory said. “Whether you’re talking about roads or what have you, all of these become discretionary when you have a state or federal program growing at a rate you can’t control each year.”

According to a study by the Kaiser Commission on Medicaid and the uninsured, Medicaid expenses will continue to rise nationwide by about nine percent every year through 2012. According to Conners, Albany County’s Medicaid expenses from September 2001 through August 2002 were $270 million, approximately 150 percent of the county’s property tax. If the county’s expenditures continue to grow at the Kaiser Commission’s estimated rate, Albany County would spend $600 million on Medicaid in 2012.

—T.D.


Hungry for peace: Women Against War. Photo by John Whipple

The Feminine Critique

Local women come together to show their opposition to war

Dressed all in black, nearly 30 women converged on the marble steps inside New York state’s Legislative Office Building last Thursday to launch a chain fast for peace. The fast represented a cross section of Capital Region women who are opposed to an impending war with Iraq.

“I am fasting because I cannot support a preemptive military strike that will inevitably lead to more violent confrontations around the globe and in the United States,” said Nadya Lawson, program director of In Our Own Voice.

“Our country is moving in a troubling direction,” said Rev. Beth Illingworth, a Presbyterian minister. “Our leaders are motivated by fear, self-righteousness and desire for power. This Women’s Fast for Peace redirects our energy and thoughts toward a wiser way of caring for this planet and her inhabitants.”

So far, more than 45 women in the Capital Region have signed up to participate in the fast, which many are hoping will last until International Women’s Day on March 8. Each member has agreed to fast for a 24-hour period beginning at 5 PM each day at the Women’s Building on Central Avenue in Albany. During the fast, women will spend their time making phone calls to local and national politicians and working on a variety of antiwar projects.

“When we first launched this fast we did not know what kind of turnout to expect,” said Erin O’Brien, executive director of the Women’s Building. “But we have had such an overwhelming response. I just hope we can keep it up and hopefully stop the war.”

The fast is being organized by a new organization in Albany called Women Against War. O’Brien, also a member of this group, said the whole idea started with just 12 people in the living room of a friend’s home in October.

“We were just a group of women that wanted to do something to show dissent against the war,” said O’Brien. “So we started Women Against War, but I don’t think anyone expected it to grow as quickly as it has.”

The group has since increased in size from 12 to 50 women in just two months. O’Brien attributes the rapid growth mainly to word-of-mouth and e-mail conversations.

“We spend a lot of time sharing information through e-mail about the situation in the Middle East and discussing peaceful, effective ways to get our message across,” said O’Brien.

At this point, she added, the group is starting to gain national and international attention, with members as far away as Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Canada.

All those involved in the fast and Women Against War are calling on President George W. Bush to stop the invasion of Iraq, which they believe will inevitably kill thousands of innocent Iraqis and also endanger the long-term health of American military personnel. The fast is designed to mobilize women to create a culture of peace rather than war.

“I believe that the Bush administration’s determination to wage war on Iraq will increase rather than decrease global terrorism,” said Dr. Judith Fetterley, a professor in the English department at the University at Albany. “I do not want my children to inherit such a world, and so I feel I have a responsibility to do everything that I can to prevent this war from happening.”

—N.G.


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