Muslim Workers Suspended Over Prayer Breaks

PHOTO: A customer walks out of a Hertz Global Holdings Inc. car rental store.

Muslim shuttle bus drivers at Seattle-Tacoma airport in Washington have been suspended by their employer, Hertz, for not clocking out when taking prayer breaks throughout their shifts.

Thirty-four drivers have been suspended since last Friday, when managers stood outside the Muslim prayer room and warned entering workers that they would be suspended if they didn't clock out before praying, according to a spokesman from the Teamsters union Local 117, which represents the workers. The union alleges that Hertz singled out the employees based on religion -- a charge that Hertz vehemently denies.

"It is common practice that if you're taking mini-breaks, if you have a lull in your work and go get a cup of tea or smoke a cigarette, two or three minute breaks throughout the day, you don't have to clock out," said Tracey Thompson, secretary and treasurer of the union. "Individuals take breaks, go across the street to Starbucks to get a cup of coffee during intermittent breaks, and this wasn't focused on anybody doing anything else but praying. They made it about prayer."

Rich Broome, a senior vice president at Hertz, said that the issue is not at all about religion, but about employees abusing the prayer breaks well beyond the agreed-upon four- or five-minute breaks.

"The breaks were being used for prayers but typically extended past the time necessary to complete prayer obligations," Broome said. "To be fair to all the employees that work there, we implemented this clock-in, clock-out rule to ensure that the employees were able to pray and ensure that they return to work in timely fashion."

Broome said the decision to implement the policy was a joint one between local managers and the corporate office. He noted that Hertz employs Muslim workers all over the world and allows for prayers every day.

"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 union and Hertz met just a year ago to hammer out contract negotiations for the shuttle drivers, in which both parties agreed that two- to three-minute "mini breaks" would not require clocking in and clocking out. Now, the union alleges that Hertz has broken that agreement by suspending the employees, while Hertz claims that the offenders were taking breaks "orders of magnitude longer than mini-breaks."

The workers, who make less than $10 an hour without benefits or vacation pay, were suspended without pay beginning Sept. 30, and have not yet received notice of when they will go back to work, whether they are terminated or what disciplinary actions they might face, the union said.

Broome said that Hertz had reached out the union to begin discussions about the issue, which it hoped to resolve quickly and without litigation, but hadn't heard back from the union. The union, however, said it is still waiting to hear from Hertz.

The Teamsters filed a complaint of unfair labor practices with the National Labor Relations Board, and will try to resolve the issue through a grievance and arbitration process, it said. The union also organized a prayer activity at the airport, in front of the Hertz counter, on Oct. 5, in which workers and supporters held a short prayer service.

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