Taking Precautions--or Harassing Workers?

Arab Americans say employers are violating their rights

Last month, security officials at FedEx Corp.'s (FDX ) sorting center at Newark Airport became alarmed when they heard the eerie details of a rumor making its way through the plant: A contract mechanic named Osama Sweilan had been periodically disappearing into the company's flight-simulator room. The security men quickly set up an interrogation at an off-site warehouse, where the Egyptian-born 35-year-old says he nervously explained how he sometimes slipped into the room to make sure a pipe he'd fixed wasn't leaking. He also made a few quick calls to his wife. Occasionally, he told them, he even prayed. They pressed him further, he claims, asking about his beliefs regarding politics and Osama bin Laden. Afterward, they confiscated his ID and told his outsourcing firm that he was no longer wanted in his 16-month-old job.

NAME GAME? Even staunch civil libertarians concede they can see why FedEx, which says it can't comment on the situation, was initially concerned. What they have a problem with is the alleged discrimination and subsequent dismissal that Sweilan says was the result of profiling a Muslim who happens to have the same first name as the most wanted man in the world.

Sweilan is one of a growing number of Arab Americans who allege they are victims of a new, post-September 11 wave of workplace discrimination, one they claim is legitimizing privacy violations and unfair firings under the rubric of corporate security. Some say they have lost their jobs after being questioned--and cleared--by the FBI, while others complain of being turned away by recruiters or informed that they can no longer count on their companies' support in getting H1B visas.

This heightened wariness of anyone who is or appears to be from the Arab world is yet another new feature of the post-attack workplace. Arab American advocacy groups report as many as 1,000 complaints of September 11-related discrimination and harassment, with the most recent batch of which originated on the job. "We have people being targeted at work who have lived in this country for 25 years with no record of any violation," says Imad Hamad, the Detroit-based regional director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is investigating 100 such cases and has created a special category for the claims and a new task force. "We're beginning to see a backlash," says EEOC chair Cari M. Dominguez.

Many of the charges come from workers in the security and airline industries, such as aircraft mechanic Mamdouh Bayoumy, who alleges that Boeing Co. (BA ) reneged on a job offer in San Antonio. Bayoumy, an Egyptian, says the company claimed it could not "secure his background" despite his 10-year track record of work in the U.S. and good references. Boeing declined to comment.

The claims highlight the tightrope Corporate America is on as it balances its role as a kind of secondary special-ops force for homeland security with upholding the rights of employees. Targeted workers and their attorneys say some businesses--in rifling through employees' possessions, asking intrusive questions, or forcing some to take leaves--have gone too far. Company lawyers counter that their corporate clients have an increased responsibility to know who is working for them. Still, "if a client tells me they are concerned about a foreign worker on their payroll, my first question is, `Were you concerned before September 11?' If not, we have to be very careful," says Jo Anne C. Adlerstein, a partner at labor law firm Proskauer Rose.

Many in the Arab American community worry that companies are being too careful--and not hiring them. Sweilan says he has faxed out 14 resumes but has yet to receive a single reply. Some could chalk it up to the weak economy, but Sweilan doesn't. "I hope my son never has to go through this," he says. "His name's Mohammad." It will be a long time, many lament, before a name like that loses the stigma of September 11.

By Michelle Conlin in New York

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