Hertz Fires Workers in Prayer Time Break Dispute

Hertz has fired 25 Muslim workers at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport for their refusal to clock out during personal breaks taken to pray during their shifts, according to ABC News.

Hertz sent termination notices to the Somali Muslim workers Thursday after suspending them on Sept. 30 for failing to clock out before their daily pray times.

ABC News interviewed Teamsters Local 117 secretary-treasurer Tracey Thompson about the incident. In Thompson’s opinion, the termination notices to the Somali Muslim workers directly targeted their religion.

"The employer is saying this is not about religion. The problem is, this is only enforced policy with respect to prayer breaks," Thompson said. "I'm quite certain people take many, many smoking breaks, or go across the street to get coffee. But when they singled out this group of workers when they are engaging in prayer, it is hard to make it about anything other than religion."

Hertz employers notified Muslim shuttle drivers on Sept. 30 that they would have to start clocking out and clocking in for prayer breaks or risk being put on probation or be terminated altogether.

Teamsters Local 117 pointed out that non-Muslim employees don’t have to clock out for smoke or coffee breaks.

According to Hertz, some of their employees were taking advantage of the casual mini-break system and taking too long after praying to get back to work. Hertz felt their leniency with Muslim’s workers prayer time was unbalanced treatment for non-Muslim workers. The company claimed they were given ample notification of the change and that they would be paid for the breaks.

According to ABC, the Muslim employees and Hertz attempted a negotiation in September but could not reach an agreement.

"We made repeated offers to suspended employees to return to work and take paid prayer breaks and they repeatedly refused to accept the clocking out agreement," said Richard Broome, a spokesman for Hertz. "We made it clear if they wouldn't accept, we'd terminate. We gave them letters [Thursday], and then gave them an additional 24 hours before we implemented the terminations."

On the other side, the union argued that Hertz should have been willing to compromise the issue with a third-party arbiter while allowing the employees in question to earn a living wage.

"It was very, very frustrating," the labor union leader told ABC. "It was clearly just about corporate power and control. I said, 'There's no harm to you as a corporation to suspend enforcement for six weeks [while in arbitration], while the harm to the individuals is significant, and the balance favored honoring the individuals' personal freedoms.' But they said no because they could."

Thompson expressed her pride in representing the Somali employees who she feels are fighting a battle between hard to obtain low wage positions and maintaining the religious practices of their average day in accordance to the Muslim beliefs.

"This idea that people were laid off for praying is not true," Broome said. "We have a lot of employees in Seattle and around the world that are Muslim who pray every day and who have not been suspended. This is a matter about following simple workplace rules and complying with those rules."

The workers, who are part-time and make less than $10 an hour without benefits or vacation pay, were suspended without pay beginning Sept. 30, the union said.

Teamsters Local 117 will continue to pursue the issue by filing a grievance with the National Labor Relations Board and a religious discrimination complaint through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission with the claim that Hertz violated workers legal and civil rights.