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Meanwhile, Tazul said he was told to drop his suit. An Islamic priest was dispatched by store managers to pressure him, and suspicious characters followed him in his neighborhood, he said in an interview.
Whole Foods in Soho closed its doors last year, and Rosenblum and Manley couldn't be reached for comment. According to the EEOC's report, the employers insisted the workers were fired for cause and denied any discrimination. An attorney for Whole Foods failed to return calls.
Relatively few complaints of religious discrimination are filed with the federal EEOC, although the number has risen in recent years. And only a handful of discrimination cases are brought to trial. After investigating, the EEOC upheld the workers' complaints and attempted conciliation. When that failed, the agency filed suit. The lawsuit is now pending before federal District Judge Constance Baker Motley in Manhattan.
"We don't bring a lot of religious discrimination cases," said Michael O'Brien, an EEOC attorney. O'Brien said Whole Foods' discrimination was compounded by retaliation when managers fired Tazul and forced out employees who refused to sign affidavits denying discrimination.
The Muslim workers have also retained private attorneys to represent them in a companion action, seeking millions of dollars in damages and back pay. One of them, Preston Leschins, is an observant Jew. "These people were initially strange and foreign to me, but they're wonderful, down-to-earth people trying to earn a living for their families," he said. "This employer made his living off their backs, and this is how he repaid them."