A recent allegation of anti-Semitism at a local business with deep roots in the community has sparked social media outrage, calls for a boycott, a visit from Gov. Andrew Cuomo and an arrest.
Now, the owner of Mother Earth’s Storehouse said that the company is taking action to shore up their anti-harassment and discrimination policies. Meanwhile, Mother Earth’s co-owner Kevin Schneider said that he believed both the incident and management’s handling of it had been misrepresented.
“We definitely do not tolerate hate speech in any way,” said Schneider. “There is a lot of misinformation about how this was handled.”
The incident occurred at Mother Earth’s location in the King’s Mall in the Town of Ulster on March 11. According to a statement released by her attorney, 18-year-old Sarah Shabanowitz was in a walk-in cooler getting items to restock shelves when co-worker Will Sullivan, 20, approached. Shabanowitz said Sullivan stood outside the cooler, shut off the light and said, “Now we’re going to put you in the gas chamber.” Shabanowitz said that when Sullivan saw her look of shock at his comment, he continued, “Yeah, you fucking Jew.”
According to her lawyer’s statement, Shabanowitz immediately reported the incident to an assistant store manager. Management, she said, spoke to Sullivan, who then delivered what she considered an insincere apology. The pair continued to work together in the store’s produce section. The next day, Shabanowitz said, she related the incident to Schneider and told him that she believed management had not responded to her concerns or taken any steps to make her feel safe. Shabanowitz claims that Schneider responded nonchalantly, “My friends have called me worse.”
On March 13, Shabanowitz said, an assistant manager informed her that she would be moved out of the produce section. Shabanowitz added that the manager told her not to say anything about the incident. The same day, Shabanowitz said, Sullivan sought her out and confronted her angrily for “making him look bad.” Shabanowitz said that she reported the confrontation to management and went home early because she was upset. Two days later, on March 15, Shabanowitz said that she was called into a meeting where an assistant manager took her to task for supposedly telling co-workers that Sullivan was an anti-Semite.
“You made him out to be a bad guy,” Shabanowitz said the assistant manager told her. “He was just making a joke. There have been times when I’ve said stuff like that.”
Shabanowitz said that the manager then informed her that she would be working at the register. When she became upset and asked to leave early, Shabanowitz said, she was told to either get to work or be fired. She was also warned again not to discuss the incident. After a phone conversation with her mother, Shabanowitz said, she left the store and did not return. Shabanowitz claimed that Sullivan remained employed by the store until after word of the incident began to circulate on social media.
In the same statement, attorney Ilann M. Maazel said that Mother Earth’s management had badly bungled the handling of the incident. Maazel wrote that Shabanowitz would pursue “every available remedy” in response to the store’s handling of her complaint.
“Mother Earth’s response was a perfect example of how not to respond to a complaint of workplace harassment,” Maazel wrote. “They did nothing to keep Sarah safe, they belittled anti-Semitism in the workplace and they told Sarah to keep quiet. The problem at Mother Earth is not just the employee; it is the management.”
Word of the incident began to spread after Shabanowitz’s mother posted about it on social media. Within a few days, there were calls to boycott the store and, according to Schneider, a flood of angry and sometimes threatening emails and phone calls. Shabanowitz, meanwhile, relayed her account to the Ulster County Jewish Federation and filed a formal complaint against Sullivan with the state police. On Friday, March 22, Gov. Andrew Cuomo held a press conference at the state police barracks on Route 209 to tout Sullivan’s arrest on a charge of second-degree aggravated harassment, a Class A misdemeanor.
Jewish Federation spokesman Geoffrey Miller said the group was taking the incident at Mother Earth’s seriously in light of a rising tide of anti-Semitism locally, including recent allegations that Hurley’s highway superintendent had directed anti-Semitic language at a town employee.
“I have lived in Ulster County since 1971 and there has always been anti-Semitism on some level,” said Miller. “But in terms of stuff bubbling to the surface, showing up on the front page, there’s definitely been an increase.”
Miller said that he saw the federation’s role as not only offering aid and comfort to victims of anti-Semitism, but teaching employers and others how to better address the issue. Miller said the group had helped facilitate a meeting between management at Mother Earth’s, a local rabbi and members of the Ulster County Interfaith Council.
“The community needs to be educated in terms of what anti-Semitism is, it takes many forms, it does not have to mean,” said Miller. “But however it is meant on the part of the person who does it, it does not land well with the Jewish community.”
Schneider said his company has undertaken a number of changes in response to the incident and its aftermath, including hiring a human resources firm. The firm, he said, would revamp the employee handbook, take over employee anti-harassment training, ensure compliance with state guidelines on discrimination and harassment and handle other HR functions previously done in-house. Schneider said all employees would have to take a state-sponsored online class on harassment issues, while an outside consultant would do a series of in-person sensitivity workshops for staff.
But, Schneider said, he believed some parts of the story that have emerged on social media and in the press were misleading — both about the incident itself and the company’s handling of the complaint. Schneider declined to go into specifics, citing potential litigation.
“I’ve just been trying to sell good products and do good things for 41 years, I always thought of us as an asset to the community,” said Schneider. “This has been a real learning experience.”