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A snowblower manufacturer in Wisconsin violated the civil rights of its Somali Muslim workers when it stopped allowing them to take work breaks for daily prayers, a federal lawsuit charges. The company tried to get the workers to voluntarily resign and terminated workers who continued to assert their religious rights, according to the complaint.
Ariens Co., the self-proclaimed “King of Snow,” first announced the policy change in December 2015, telling workers it would take effect the following month, according to the complaint filed Dec. 6 by CAIR National Legal Defense Fund on behalf of 19 of the workers. Management then reiterated the coming change in a number of subsequent meetings with Somali Muslim workers prior to the effective date, the Council on American-Islamic Relations’ litigation arm alleges.
The Brillion, Wis.-based company insisted on changing its prior policy of accommodating the religious observances of its Somali Muslim workforce despite repeated attempts by the employees to come to a workable compromise, the complaint says. Under the old policy, Somali Muslim employees had been allowed to take short breaks, two at a time, when the prayer requirements of their faith fell during the workday. The workers were told that under the new policy they could only pray during their designated breaks on a schedule that included all workers, the complaint says.
The compromises offered by the workers included aligning their scheduled breaks with their prescribed prayer times and clocking out to pray—the Muslim faith requires that prayers be said at specific times of the day. The workers also offered to pray one at a time and to work overtime so they could meet their prayer obligations, the complaint says.
Ariens management refused to compromise and instead told workers it wouldn’t oppose their application for unemployment compensation if they willingly resigned, the complaint charges. The company also allegedly distributed to Somali Muslim employees the state form for applying for unemployment benefits and threatened to oppose the applications of workers who refused the resign.
Several employees resigned, but those who stayed were issued warning slips by Ariens’ manufacturing leader when they continued to take short prayer breaks, even though they did so with the approval of their supervisors. Some workers were fired as a result, the complaint says. Supervisors also began to monitor Muslim employees’ bathroom and other scheduled breaks to make sure they weren’t using the time to pray, the complaint charges.
Further unsuccessful attempts to negotiate a solution followed, as did further threats, according to the complaint. Eventually each 19 of the plaintiffs either resigned or was terminated. The workers were punished even though some told Ariens about their prayer needs before receiving job offers and all told the company when they were hired, the complaint says. The company had agreed to provide the necessary breaks during these discussions, the complaint says.
“We were surprised and disappointed to learn that the Council on American-Islamic Relations, located in Washington D.C., filed a complaint alleging religious discrimination against Ariens Company,” the company said in a Dec. 7 email to Bloomberg Law.
“The United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission investigated those allegations and dismissed CAIR’s EEOC complaint in September,” Ariens said in the statement. “In addition, Ariens continues to proudly employ and hire many individuals from the local Somali community. We believe that the EEOC’s dismissal decision was correct and that we will prevail in this matter.”
The Muslim civil rights group filed an EEOC discrimination charge and complaint with the National Labor Relations Board against Ariens in May 2016.
The EEOC is the federal agency that enforces federal workplace discrimination laws. Eliminating bias against workers of the Muslim and similar faiths, specifically “backlash discrimination” against Muslims and Sikhs or people of Arab, Middle Eastern, or South Asian descent, is one of the agency’s current strategic enforcement priorities. It was made an enforcement priority after the EEOC launched an interagency initiative with the Justice Department in March 2016 to combat religious discrimination and promote religious freedom in the workplace and other arenas.
In addition to seeking to recoup the lost back pay and other economic harm caused to the 19 workers by the alleged discrimination, CAIR asks for awards for the emotional distress the workers experienced and attorneys’ fees and litigation costs. The complaint asks the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin to hit Ariens with punitive damages as well.
The 19 workers should also be reinstated in their jobs and the company should be ordered to reinstitute the prior policy under which Muslim prayer breaks were accommodated, the complaint says.
CAIR attorneys Lena F. Masri, Gadeir I. Abbas, and Ahmed Mohamed in Washington represent the workers. No attorney had filed an appearance yet for Ariens.
The case is Badal v. Ariens Co. , E.D. Wis., No. 1:17-cv-10704, complaint filed 12/6/17 .
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