EEOC, NLRB Charges Filed in Muslim Prayer Break Case

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By Kevin McGowan

May 25 — An Islamic civil rights group May 25 filed an EEOC discrimination charge and an NLRB complaint on behalf of 15 Somali Muslims fired after a Wisconsin power equipment manufacturer began restricting the timing of workplace prayer breaks.

Ariens Co. engaged in unlawful religious and national origin discrimination as well as retaliation against employees who sought accommodation for their religious beliefs, the Council on American-Islamic Relations said in announcing the charge filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's Milwaukee office.

Ariens also violated the National Labor Relations Act by firing employees who engaged in protected concerted activities, CAIR said.

CAIR, along with a Denver law firm, previously filed similar EEOC and National Labor Relations Board complaints on behalf of Muslim workers at a Cargill Inc. beef processing plant in Fort Morgan, Colo. CAIR earlier had indicated it was contemplating the EEOC charge against Ariens.

Other cases in which Muslim employees allege discrimination or retaliation for taking prayer breaks are pending throughout the country (84 DLR C-1, 5/2/16).

Company Says It Respects Religion

In a May 25 statement, Ariens said it's “disappointing” that a Washington-based organization is filing an EEOC complaint against the Brillion, Wis., employer.

“We have had Muslim employees working for the company for nine years,” said Ann Stilp, an Ariens corporate communications manager. “We currently have 27 Muslim employees who continue to work here, and the company continues to accommodate them with prayer rooms. We respect their faith and we respect the work they do.”

The company previously had said it began enforcing its scheduled break policy because non-Muslim employees complained about workplace disruptions caused when Muslim production workers left the line to pray.

Timing of Breaks Caused Conflict

In a May 24 letter to the EEOC, CAIR detailed the events leading to Ariens's alleged discrimination and retaliation.

Ariens had allowed individual Muslim employees to take brief prayer breaks with their supervisors' approval, and no workplace disruption resulted, CAIR said.

But in January, the company began enforcing a policy requiring Muslim employees to take prayer breaks only during two pre-scheduled 10-minute break periods.

Observant Muslims must pray at five specific times during the day, so some employees asked Ariens for flexibility in timing prayer breaks or to move the scheduled breaks closer to the times during which they must pray, CAIR said.

But Ariens management refused to discuss any accommodations, disciplined Muslim employees who took prayer breaks outside the prescribed break periods and ultimately fired 15 Somali Muslim employees, including some who had never violated the break policy, according to CAIR.

The company committed multiple violations of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, including failure to accommodate employees' religious beliefs and retaliation for seeking such accommodation, CAIR said.

The EEOC and the NLRB now will investigate the charges, which could take months, said Maha Sayed, a CAIR staff attorney in Washington who represents the workers.

If the EEOC declines to litigate, it could issue a right-to-sue letter that allows the workers to file a private Title VII lawsuit, Sayed said during a May 25 press briefing.

To contact the reporter on this story: Kevin McGowan in Washington at kmcgowan@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Susan J. McGolrick at smcgolrick@bna.com

For More Information

Text of CAIR's letter to the EEOC is available at http://src.bna.com/fki.