KANSAS CITY, Mo. — A former Kansas City woman who converted to Islam in 2005 said she was harassed for years at AT&T, and that the abuse boiled over in 2008 when her boss snatched her head scarf and exposed her hair.
Susann Bashir sued, and this week a Jackson County jury awarded her $5 million in punitive damages against Southwestern Bell/AT&T, where she worked as a fiber optics network builder for more than 10 years.
AT&T said Friday that it disagrees with the verdict and plans to appeal. AT&T is a “nationally recognized leader in workforce diversity and inclusion,” a spokesman said.
It’s not been a banner year for AT&T in regards to diversity. Earlier this year The Department of Justice announced a lawsuit against AT&T, charging that the telecom giant looked the other way while Nigerian scam artists exploited its call-assist service for the hearing impaired — and then turned around and billed the FCC for the calls.
The amount Bashir stands to receive will be much less than $5 million, however, because Missouri law caps such awards at five times the actual damage amount plus attorney fees.
The jury awarded Bashir $120,000 in lost wages and other actual damages. Attorney fees will be determined later by the judge, said Amy Coopman, Bashir’s lawyer.
Thursday’s overall award appears to be the largest jury verdict for a workplace religious discrimination case in Missouri history, Coopman said.
The Kansas City Star reported that Bashir was living in North Kansas City in 2005 when she converted to Islam. According to court documents, that’s when her troubles at AT&T began. Just months before she converted, she had been commended in the company newsletter for doing good work, she said.
In court documents, Bashir said her work environment became hostile when co-workers made harassing comments about her religion and referred to her hijab as “that thing on her head.”
“I was shocked. I thought, ‘What is going on?’ ” she said during an interview at her lawyer’s Kansas City office. “Nobody ever cared what I wore before. Nobody ever cared what religion I was before.”
Bible verses were left on her desk. Co-workers asked if she was going to blow up the building and called her a “towelhead” and a terrorist.
Bashir said she called an employee help line in March 2005 and asked that sensitivity training be provided for her co-workers.
“It was a worthless call,” she said. “Nothing ever changed.”