New York's Sikh and Muslim transit workers will be allowed to wear religious head coverings without a government agency logo after years of bitter legal battles that started after the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks.
A settlement between workers and New York City Transit run by the state Metropolitan Transportation Authority was announced Wednesday.
"This was the back-of-the-bus solution," said Amardeep Singh, a Sikh-American community spokesman who compared the agency's dealings with the employees to the pre-civil rights practice of seating black Americans at the back of public buses.
The agency issued a policy in 2003 forcing employees wearing the traditional Sikh turbans and Muslim khimars, or headscarves, to work out of public view. Some were reassigned from bus routes to nonpublic jobs in depots.
The next year, workers were allowed to wear the head coverings in public â€” but only with the MTA logo attached.
Singh's nonprofit Sikh Coalition represents five subway station agents and a train operator who joined four Muslim bus drivers to fight what was dubbed the "brand or segregate" policy.
Shayana Kadidal, an attorney at Manhattan's Center for Constitutional Rights, said it was "a calculated attempt" to hide certain workers "on the grounds that they 'look Muslim' and might alarm the public for that reason."
Among them was a subway train operator who became a 9/11 hero, for evacuating more than 800 people from the subway near the World Trade Center by maneuvering his train to safety after power was knocked out. Above, the towers were collapsing and dust filled the station.
"The MTA honored me for driving my train in reverse away from the towers on 9/11 and leading passengers to safety," said motorman Kevin Harrington. "I didn't have a corporate logo on my turban on 9/11."
The U.S. Justice Department brought its case under the 1964 Civil Rights Act, saying New York's transit officials had discriminated against workers.
The city agency faced separate lawsuits filed in federal court.
Harrington, who was brought up Catholic and converted to the Sikh religion, said the policy "was driven by fear. I am relieved that the policy of branding or segregating Sikh or Muslim workers is coming to an end."
In a statement released Wednesday, the MTA New York City Transit said the settlement "contains no finding of fault or liability."
The transit agency said it agrees "to modify the headwear portion of the NYCT uniform policy to permit employees in those titles to wear turbans, headscarves, and certain other forms of headwear that do not contain the standard NYCT-issued logo."
But any head coverings must be blue â€” the color of standard transit employee uniforms.
Under this week's settlement, transit authorities are to pay the six Sikhs a total of $87,500.
Attorney Lonnie Hart Jr., who represents three of the four Muslim workers, said they also received an undisclosed amount of money.
The problem started when his client, Malikah Alkebulan, a Muslim bus driver, was hired several months after Sept. 11, 2001. While in training, he said, "she was told she would have to take 'that thing' off her head."
At first, she refused but then relented because she was still on probation for her job, according to Hart.
He said transit officials then sought out other Muslim drivers wearing head coverings and they were taken off buses.
"We're gratified the case has finally been settled," he said. "It's been a long, hard struggle."