Presbyterian Española Hospital, which is accused of religious discrimination against former employee Sahaj Khalsa, chose the wrong Sikh to pick on.
Just ask Harold Gomez, the Española man set to stand trial this summer on attempted murder charges for stabbing Sahaj nine times in 2008. After Gomez threatened Sahaj's wife and kids with a knife, Sahaj intervened and was attacked. Sahaj managed to wrestle the knife away from Gomez and subdue him until law enforcement arrived on the scene, all while suppressing his own bleeding. So it's not surprising that, of the four practicing Sikhs who allegedly faced discrimination at the hands of Presbyterian, Sahaj is the one who decided to fight back.
The complaint Sahaj lodged with the state Equal Employment Opportunity Commission earlier this month alleges that, after nine years at Presbyterian, he was forced, under the new management of current Director Brenda Romero, to either shave his beard or leave his job. According to Siri Khalsa, another Sikh formerly employed by Presbyterian, the hospital used different tactics to get rid of each of the four men.
Siri was forced to resign after he failed to turn in reports for calls at which no patient was located, or if ambulances were dispatched to check on barking dogs. The practice of not filling out reports on insignificant calls was widespread among the staff, but Siri was told that management was conducting an investigation and notifying the Public Regulation Commission. As soon as he left, the issue was dropped completely, he says.
The third Sikh, Dharam Pal Khalsa, was not allowed to return to work after taking time off for a necessary operation, Siri says. Hospital staff knowingly scheduled the fourth Sikh, Dahm Khalsa, for work shifts in conflict with his other job as a Santa Fe County firefighter, then terminated him for failing to show up, according to allegations.
Presbyterian on-call administrator Cheryl Marita declined to discuss any specific policies or incidents with SFR and would only make a general statement saying hospital staff "remain committed to exploring this matter and do want to come to a resolution."
Siri says he believes Sahaj was targeted for his beard because he was such an upstanding employee that there was nothing else Presbyterian could pin on him.
"Sahaj is a model employee," Siri says. "That guy's as honest as they come."
Española Police Sgt. Christian Lopez investigated the Harold Gomez case and has worked with the Sikh paramedics at countless crime scenes over his 22 years in law enforcement.
"[Sahaj] is very intelligent; he's a hell of a paramedic," Lopez says. "I know, if one of my guys went down, he'd be one of the ones I'd want there…To hear that they forced him out is kind of a shock, that they would let somebody like that go. I don't mean to categorize [Sikhs] but, when they're in a particular field, they're good at what they do."
Performing service in the community is part of the Sikh religion; in fact, one reason adherents wear turbans and beards is to help them look distinctive, thus signaling that they can be called upon by others needing help. Akal Security was actually started by a Sikh whose beard and turban prevented him from getting a job in law enforcement after he graduated from the police academy in Santa Fe, Ek Ong Kaar Khalsa, a spokeswoman for the Española Sikh Dharma community, says.
"I think there are many of the men here in the community who gravitate toward these kind of positions, either with the police department or the fire department or the ambulance, because they've got that in their blood almost, like do something that matters; do something worthwhile; put yourself out there on the front line," Ek Ong Kaar says. "Sahaj was attacked and defended himself, defended his family…he's an incredibly respected member of this community."
Sahaj, who spoke to SFR from Roswell, where he is conducting a paramedic training, says, in spite of the insult and injury he received in Española, he believes that community has been accepting to his faith overall.
"The vast majority of the employees I worked with at Española and at [Emergency Medical Services] are great people who provide excellent care and who are very nice and kind to me, and I still consider a number of them friends," Sahaj says. "There was a small minority that was opposed to, for whatever reason, Sikhs working there, and the shame of the whole thing is that the administration of Presbyterian allowed the prejudice of that minority to become overt."