Trilochan Singh Obero would not shave his beard due to his religion and was denied a job.
By Sunita Sohrabji
The New Citizens Press
Trilochan Singh Oberoi, a bearded Sikh American, will finally begin working at Folsom State Prison in California Nov. 1, after a contentious six-year battle to gain employment there.
“I feel like a soldier who has finished a long battle,” a jubilant Oberoi told India-West. “I do understand that for any organization to change their system takes years and years, and I did my best to patiently try to win over the system,” said the 65-year-old veteran Indian naval officer.
In 2005, Oberoi had applied to work as a correctional officer at Folsom State Prison, and passed a battery of tests before being told by prison officials that he would have to shave off his religiously-mandated beard to take a respirator-fit test which requires wearing a gas mask. Oberoi refused and the CDCR denied him employment.
Oberoi sued the state and received a ruling in his favor in 2008 from the State Personnel Board, which noted that the CDCR had made no efforts to accommodate a religious requirement or to consider alternatives to the gas mask.
The board concluded that the CDCR had discriminated against Oberoi on the basis of his religion and ordered that the agency expedite Oberoi’s application for employment and find a way to accommodate Oberoi’s beard, once he was employed.
But the CDCR and the California Attorney General’s office fought the ruling for three years.
In mediation this August before a retired judge, the CDCR agreed to let Oberoi work in an administrative capacity at the prison, and also paid him $295,000 in lost wages.
Attorney Harmeet Dhillon, who represented Oberoi through his multi-year battle, said this was the largest settlement to date for a Sikh civil rights case.
“People should look at the case of this man who persevered for many years, living hand to mouth, until he finally achieved victory. This is four years of litigation at an end,” Dhillon told India-West, asserting that the state had spent more than $500,000 from its cash-strapped coffers to deny Oberoi employment.
“No American should have to choose between his or her faith and a job, and this is particularly so when the employer is our own state government,” said Dhillon in a press statement.
“We are troubled that it took four years of litigation, and six years of waiting, in order to get Mr. Oberoi a job at the CDCR. Moreover, the CDCR still refuses to hire Sikhs as correctional officers, claiming a safety issue while hypocritically employing non-Sikhs who wear beards,” she said.
Oberoi, who comes from a family that has served in the Indian defense sector, said he had worn gas masks on several occasions in his 26-year career as an Indian naval officer and nine years as a ship captain. He noted that he kept his beard tied, not free-flowing, which he said posed little impediment to wearing a mask.
Terry Thornton, deputy press secretary at the CDCR, told India-West she was unaware of a settlement in the case and asked this newspaper to provide her with background documents. The CDCR later said it would not comment on the settlement.
Robert Gaultney, the CDCR attorney involved with the Oberoi case, also had not returned calls for comment at press time.
Under the conditions of the settlement, Oberoi will not be allowed to serve as a prison guard but will instead receive the title of Staff Services Manager I, with an annual salary of $50,000, according to Dhillon.
Oberoi said he was happy with the settlement, even though he still cannot work as a corrections officer. “I wasn’t there to force the CDCR to change their policies only for me. It was okay to give them this wider window,” he told India-West, adding that his wife Swarn was happy with his new job.
“We hope that Mr. Oberoi’s perseverance, bravery and insistence on respect, equal treatment, and justice will serve as an example to other Sikh and South Asian job applicants, and that as a community South Asians will be encouraged by his example to insist on their full civil rights under the law,” said Dhillon.
Prior to joining the CDCR, Oberoi worked with retail giant Walmart for almost 10 years, and as an instructional aide in the Folsom Unified School District.
This was printed in the November 6, 2011 - November 19, 2011 Edition