The Shmooze

California Unemployment Office Accused of Religious Discrimination

By Renee Ghert-Zand

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Jeff Weinberger would like to see the California State Employment Development department do some teshuvah this High Holiday season.

The San Francisco resident, who was laid off from his executive-level hi-tech marketing job last month, received a notice to attend a “re-employment eligibility assessment appointment” on September 29, the first day of Rosh Hashanah. When he notified the EDD that he would need to reschedule for religious reasons, he was told that he was at risk of losing his unemployment benefits if he did not show up on the 29th.

Upon receiving the letter from the EDD, which had a bolded headline stating, “Failure to attend this appointment may affect your eligibility to receive unemployment benefits,” Weinberger immediately tried to contact the government agency. When his attempts to get in touch with someone at the state agency by phone and Internet failed, Weinberg turned to his elected officials for help. He contacted State Senator Mark Leno, Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom and Governor Jerry Brown.

Only the office of Senator Leno (who is Jewish) responded with an offer of assistance. A state-level EDD representative contacted Weinberger after getting a call from the legislator’s office, and explained that no special accommodation could be made, but that there was a chance that he could work something out informally with the local EDD office where the appointment was to take place.

In the end, the local office accommodated Weinberger, allowing him to come in earlier in the week, before the start of Rosh Hashanah. Weinberger was pleased with this response, but not with the one he got from the state-level EDD representative when he suggested that she ask EDD leadership to consider ways to accommodate people who are observant in religions other than Christianity. “She gave me the most offensive response of this whole episode: ‘It’s not feasible for us to make accommodation for such a small percentage of the population,’” Weinberger told the Shmooze.

Weinberger informed the Anti-Defamation League of what had happened, and of the response he received from the EDD representative. Nancy Appel, the associate director of the ADL’s Central-Pacific regional office, plans to write a letter to the EDD on Weinberger’s behalf. “No citizen should have to choose between religious observance and receiving a public benefit,” Appel said. She agreed with Weinberger that the response that he found offensive showed a kind of hostility toward religious observance that could lead to discrimination.

Although Appel is used to receiving complaints about problems that arise when Jewish holidays conflict with work or school schedules, this is the first case that has come to her in which the EDD was involved.

Weinberger expressed concern about other Jewish Americans who may not be as “argumentative” as he. “For every Jeff Weinberger who comes to me, there are others who just suck it up. And they shouldn’t have to,” said Appel.


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