Jewish Fireman Files Bias Claim Over Scheduling

Times Staff Writer

An Orthodox Jewish fireman has filed a $10-million discrimination claim against the City of Glendale, alleging that he was forced to take a desk job because his superiors otherwise made it difficult for him to observe the Sabbath on Saturdays and to wear his yarmulke while on duty.

The claim filed by fireman Michael Pomeranz, a five-year veteran of the Glendale Fire Department, also alleges that co-workers and managers mocked his religious beliefs and caused him such mental anguish that he sought psychiatric care.

Between June 2 and Oct. 15 last year, Pomeranz suffered "arbitrary, abusive and outrageous treatment, including but not limited to, verbal abuse, arbitrary transfers, a training session in full gear until he was exhausted," according to the claim.

City Attorney to Investigate

Dennis Schuck, the city's senior assistant attorney, said that he was not aware of any derogatory comments made against Pomeranz, but that he would investigate the allegation. As for the rest of the fireman's claim, Schuck said: "It appears to be factually inaccurate and totally without merit."

After the department ruled against him in an internal grievance procedure, Pomeranz, 33, accepted a transfer to a non-uniform fire inspector's position on Oct. 15.

In the new position, Pomeranz did not have to work on Saturdays and could always wear his skullcap, Schuck said. The department also allowed Pomeranz to work early hours on Friday so he could leave work before sundown, when the Jewish Sabbath begins, Schuck said.

"The transfer was not forced," Schuck said. "It was offered as a reasonable accommodation to meet his perception of his needs. He took it."

City officials have said that, to retain a sense of trust and order, the public should see only regulation clothing on a firefighter when he is in uniform. So, as a firefighter, Pomeranz was required to wear a helmet or a uniform cap over his yarmulke except when superiors allowed firemen to change from uniforms into informal clothes.

Had to Wear Two Hats

However, Pomeranz complained that the uniform baseball-style cap is not a required part of the work uniform for other firemen and that they sometimes went bareheaded while he had to wear two head coverings.

Firefighters work rotating shifts that require them to be on duty some Saturdays. However, they are allowed, with a supervisor's permission, to trade with colleagues as many as three days a month, plus four additional shifts a year.

Pomeranz had been getting approval for those swaps, officials said, but they could not guarantee that he always would. They said he would be missing too many drills and his absence might put a strain on manpower during weekends. As a fire inspector, Pomeranz is required to work only Mondays through Fridays.

State and federal laws require that employers make a reasonable effort to accommodate workers' religious beliefs but do not require them to comply with every request, Schuck said.

"The city went overboard to accommodate him," Schuck said.

However, Pomeranz's attorney, Mickey J. Wheatley, said in an interview this week that the transfer was an act of discrimination and retaliation against the fireman for complaining about his own situation and about general racial prejudice in the department. Pomeranz has "the absolute right" to remain a uniformed firefighter while not violating the tenets of his religion, the attorney said.

According to Wheatley, the city should have been able to accommodate Pomeranz on the yarmulke and Sabbath issues without transferring him out of firefighting.

Pomeranz's claim alleged that other firemen told him he "was not a man" and "no better than a nigger" because he abstained from eating meat for religious reasons.

Wheatley said Pomeranz would probably file a lawsuit if the city refuses the claim. "Michael is committed to doing whatever must be done to redress the wrongs," said Wheatley, who works for the Los Angeles law office of Leroy S. Walker.

Reached by telephone at his parents' home in North Hollywood, Pomeranz declined to discuss his claim and career, referring all questions to his attorney. Wheatley said Pomeranz has not worked for about two weeks because he is feeling ill from the stress surrounding the situation.

Fire Department officials also refused to discuss the matter, referring all inquiries to Schuck.

"The information I am getting from the Fire Department is that they were very optimistic that Mr. Pomeranz would settle into his new job and do well in it," Schuck said. "Then they were hit with this claim."

During the earlier grievance procedure with the city, Pomeranz was helped by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith.

However, neither of those organizations is involved in the current claim. ADL lawyer Betsy R. Rosenthal declined to explain why she is no longer aiding Pomeranz; ACLU attorney Carol A. Sobel could not be reached for comment.

Pomeranz was a policeman in Glendale before transferring to the Fire Department in January, 1982.

In denying Pomeranz's internal grievance in October, the city manager's office cited a controversial case decided by the U. S. Supreme Court last March. In that case, the court ruled, 5 to 4, that the Air Force could bar an Orthodox Jewish officer from wearing a yarmulke indoors while in uniform. The court's majority held that the importance of military discipline prevailed over the individual's religious obligations.

However, Wheatley said any possible lawsuit on Pomeranz's behalf would be different from the Air Force case because of the discrimination and retaliation the fireman says he suffered.

The Pomeranz claim marked the second time in recent months that a uniformed service in Glendale faced allegations of anti-minority prejudice within its ranks. A federal judge in October ruled that the Police Department had discriminated against a Latino officer in denying him a promotion to sergeant.

The city is appealing the judge's order that Ricardo L. Jauregui be promoted. Meanwhile, at the judge's prompting, the city last month appointed an investigator to look into other charges of police racism that were raised during the Jauregui trial.

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