The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) filed a religious discrimination complaint on Tuesday over a dispute between Ariens Co., a manufacturing company in Wisconsin, and Muslim employees who want extra prayer breaks. The firm fired in January seven of its Muslim workers after telling them they should stop taking an additional break for prayer, Industry Week reported. Other 14 employees resigned.

Ariens Co. manufactures lawnmowers and snow blowers at a plant outside Green Bay. The company hired a bus service to transport the new recruits to and from the plant given that they lived a considerable distance away. Ariens also accommodated them with prayer rooms.

Muslims employees against Ariens Co.
Ariens Co., a manufacturing company in Wisconsin, and Muslim employees who want extra prayer breaks are facing a dispute for alleged religious discrimination. Credit:

The manufacturer hired the 53 Muslim line workers from Somalia through an employment agency in May 2015 and things went fine with the immigrants. However, non-Muslim workers started complaining that the Somali employees were taking an extra prayer break, sometimes without notifying supervisors.

Their religion requires them to pray five times a day, which is why they must adjust their prayer times to accommodate their daily activities.

After the firm announced that all employees should strictly follow their schedules with just two 10-minute breaks, 53 of the Somali workers resigned. Fourteen of them never came back and 39 decided to return to work. Seven of these Somali Muslim workers who returned to the company were fired this week as they kept on taking prayer breaks that were not scheduled.

The company tried to solve the problem by hiring translators to face the cultural and linguistic barriers and the Muslim workers offered to take the extra break without pay. Nevertheless, Ariens Co. was worried that those work stoppages would negatively affect the productivity.

The debate

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) requires companies to accommodate a religious practice as long as it doesn’t cause “undue hardship” by having a negative impact on “workplace efficiency.”

“Unless they can prove ‘undue hardship,’ and that is definitely what is at the heart of the matter,” then the policy change is illegal,” CAIR’s National Communications Director Ibrahim Hooper said in January, as reported by The Christian Science Monitor.

Hooper, who firmly believes the Muslim workers were operating efficiently even with their prayer breaks, added that companies are usually unaware of the real meaning of undue hardship and noted that the issue required debate and compromise. He said CAIR would insist on having the workers reinstated with payback, according to the CSM’s report.

After CAIR’s official complaint, the Milwaukee office of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is set to carry out an extensive investigation to rule whether the council can be authorized to file a lawsuit on the workers’ behalf, as the Press-Gazette reported.

Susan Warner, an employment attorney with Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough, recommends employers to try to reach a consensus before taking further steps that could increase the magnitude of the conflict, Industry Week reported. She said she sensed that Ariens was making significant efforts to show workers it cared about them, concluding that the cultural barrier might be the main cause of the dispute.

Source: Christian Science Monitor