Are employers required to grant prayer breaks to Muslim employees?

A dispute between Somali Muslim workers and a Wisconsin manufacturing plant has centered around prayer breaks, as CAIR has filed a religious discrimination complaint on the workers' behalf. 

Leila Navidi/The Star Tribune/AP
Muslim leaders gather for a news conference at the Abubakar Islamic Center in Minneapolis, May 2. Somali Muslim workers at a Wisconsin factory have been engaged in a lengthy dispute with their employer over the right to take prayer breaks.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) filed a religious discrimination complaint on Tuesday, in an ongoing debate over prayer breaks between a Wisconsin manufacturing company and Muslim workers. 

Ariens Co., which manufactures snow blowers and lawnmowers at a plant outside Green Bay, Wis., fired seven of its Muslim employees in January, and another 14 resigned, after the company told Muslim workers they should stop taking an extra break for prayer, Laura Putre reported for Industry Week.

The prayer break dispute has reached its fifth month without resolution and highlights the challenges of balancing religious accommodation with work schedules, especially in a multicultural setting. 

The company had hired the workers, Somali immigrants from Green Bay, several months earlier and accommodated them with both prayer rooms and a bus service to help with the 40-minute commute. A dispute arose in January after the non-Muslim workers complained the Somali workers were taking extra breaks for prayer time, sometimes without communicating with supervisors. The company told workers to stick to two 10-minute breaks, and 53 workers walked off the job in protest. 

Muslim beliefs require five daily prayers, spaced throughout the day, and many Muslims adjust their prayer times to accommodate work, school, or travel. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) requires employers to accommodate a religious practice such as prayer unless it causes the company “undue hardship" by decreasing “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," Ibrahim Hooper, CAIR's national communications director told The Christian Science Monitor in January. "What one company thinks is an undue hardship is not actually. It is always a matter of debate and compromise."

The company hired translators to help navigate the cultural and linguistic barriers in the prayer-break dispute. The workers offered to take their third break without pay, but the company was concerned about the cost of work stoppages. 

"My advice to any employer is before you take an action ... see if there’s a way to work it out without escalating the situation. Because a lot of the time, usually a consensus can be reached," Susan Warner, an employment attorney with Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough, told Industry Week. “My impression is that [Ariens] does value these employees, and this [breakdown in communication] may be a cultural thing."

In representing the Muslim workers, CAIR said it will push to have them reinstated with back pay.

"In this case, it seemed that things were going well. Ariens obviously had Muslim employees that were taking their prayer breaks and operating efficiently," Mr. Hooper told the Monitor. "What changed?" 

The company spokeswoman noted that hiring the Somali workers had increased the number of Muslims at the plant significantly, so although the company does not discourage religious observance – even providing prayer rooms – the breaks had a bigger impact, the Green Bay Press-Gazette reported.

Since CAIR has filed an official complaint, the Milwaukee office of the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission will conduct a months-long investigation to determine whether the group can file a lawsuit on behalf of the workers, the Press-Gazette reported.

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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