Muslim workers say Mount Sinai forced them to cut beards for masks

Manhattan’s Mount Sinai Hospital discriminated against three Muslim maintenance workers by requiring that they cut their beards to pass “fit testing” for N95 safety masks, according to a suit filed Wednesday.

The Manhattan Supreme Court filing came less than 16 months after a Post expose about nurses wearing trash bags to protect themselves from the coronavirus at sister hospital Mount Sinai West sparked widespread outrage that included House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) denouncing the situation during a speech in the US Capitol.

Wednesday’s suit claims that other Mount Sinai workers, “including Orthodox Jews,” are “able to maintain a beard and were not were not similarly required to pass an N-95 fit test.”

It also alleges that Jeffrey Cohen, vice president for labor relations and human resources for the Mount Sinai Health System, made the “devout” Muslim men get a letter from a religious leader to “prove” they needed fist-length beards to comply with their “sincerely held” beliefs.

Cohen, who is named as a defendant, is accused of saying that “religion is one of those things that if you look you can find an opinion that meets your expectations” and that he didn’t want a “situation…where there are particular people who don’t have to abide by fit testing.”

“No explanation was given as to why the fit testing requirement was suddenly being enforced after almost a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, and over six months after Mount Sinai Hospital System created a policy against allowing the use of the religious exemption for facial hair on the basis that it ‘obtained special dispensations from religious organizations,” court papers say.

Exterior real estate images of Mount Sinai Hospital, Brooklyn campus.
Mount Sinai Hospital required that Muslim employees cut their beards to pass “fit testing” for N95 safety masks, according to the lawsuit.
Gregory P. Mango

“While there is no such thing as a special dispensation for religious beliefs under the New York State and New York City Human Rights Law, the purported opinion from an Islamic cleric only claimed that the shaving of beards to fit testing for an N95 was not sinful only if ‘all avenues were exhausted.’”

A footnote adds the unidentified cleric is not the plaintiffs’ religious leader and appears to be unaware “of the existence and availability of a Power Air Purifying Respirator (‘PAPR’) that that would not require a person to shave because it uses a loose fitting hood.”

The suit alleges religious discrimination in violation of both the state and city Human Rights Law, as well as “failure to engage in cooperative dialogue.”

It seeks unspecified damages on behalf of the three men, two of whom — Ronald Moye and Christopher Shaw — it says refused to accept different hospital jobs and were fired.

The third plaintiff, Brian Jones, “reluctantly accepted a kitchen position that paid less and isolated him in the back of the kitchen,” according to court papers.

Ambulance activity seen along entrance to Emergency Room of Mount Sinai West Hospital.
The lawsuit alleges religious discrimination.
Robert Miller

The suit also seeks an injunction that returns the men to their old jobs and provides them with “alternative” personal protective equipment that will accommodate their beards or exempts them from cleaning areas where they could be exposed to the coronavirus.

In addition to Cohen, the named defendants are Mount Sinai Hospital, the Mount Sinai Health System and David Girdusky, vice president of building services, who’s identified as “one of the decision makers who denied Plaintiffs a reasonable accommodation.”

Following The Post’s expose last year, Mount Sinai denied that workers at Mount Sinai West didn’t have access to protective gear, but workers said it took a week for additional supplies to arrive.

In a prepared statement Wednesday, a Mount Sinai spokesperson said, “Our policies protect our healthcare workers and our patients, and we will vigorously defend ourselves in court.”

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