10 deaf workers claim Manischewitz discriminates

NEW YORK — Just in time for Passover, 10 Russian Jewish workers are claiming that Manischewitz — famous for producing matzah, the food of liberation — discriminates against its disabled workers.

"We can't hear the fire alarms," Semyon Freydel, a Russian immigrant who has been baking for Manischewitz for over 10 years, said in sign language. "A hearing person had to run in and get me during a fire a few years ago."

The deaf workers — many of whom have been at the company from 10 to 20 years — are demanding three things: phones for the deaf, flashing fire alarms and professional interpreters on the premises during meetings and mandatory religious services at the kosher company.

Their lawyer, Alan Rich, sent Manischewitz a letter stating these requests in December.

Dissatisfied by the reaction, Rich is planning to file a $36 million lawsuit against both Manischewitz and the union, Local 3 — which the workers believe has neglected to protect their rights — as soon as he gets approval from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Receiving this approval is a requirement of almost all discrimination claims.

Rich said he would file the suit on charges that Manischewitz violated the Americans With Disabilities Act.

He has already filed an order to show cause with the U.S. District Court, Eastern District of New York.

In reaction to the allegations, Robert Kroll, president and chief executive officer of Manischewitz, said the company has "worked hard to provide jobs for new arrivals to our country and to individuals in our company."

He said immigrants make up 8 percent of the employees at the New Jersey bakery where these bakers work.

In addition, he said management is installing special phones and ensuring that interpreters attend every meeting.

Moreover, he added, the fire alarm system automatically sets off sprinklers throughout the company, which would indicate a fire to "every employee," including those who are hard of hearing.

The deaf workers were unable to give the exact year of the fire during which two of the bakers claim to have been endangered; Manischewitz said it could not discuss the matter, but a spokesman for the company said Manischewitz has "always maintained a safe workplace for its employees."

Reacting to the letter received from the bakers' lawyer, Kroll said the company "consulted with local fire authorities who advised us that our fire alarm system complies fully with all relevant regulations."

One of the managers at the New Jersey bakery is the son of two deaf Russian immigrants and is fluent in Russian sign language.

But workers say that he is not a skilled interpreter and that he often says he is too busy to translate.

The workers added that they don't feel comfortable using a manager as a translator when discussing issues with their union representative.

The bakers also said the phone Manischewitz is installing does not receive incoming calls, making it impossible for them to be contacted in the case of emergency.

"I love baking," signed one of the bakers, Garri Volfman. "But I want to be safe."