Hertz has fired 25 Muslim workers at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport for refusing to clock out while taking breaks to pray during their shifts.
Hertz sent termination notices to the Somali Muslim workers Thursday after suspending them on Sept. 30 for failing to clock out -- a move that the workers union, Teamsters Local 117, said unfairly targeted the workers for their religion.
"The employer is saying this is not about religion. The problem is, this is only enforced policy with respect to prayer breaks," said Tracey Thompson, secretary-treasurer of the union. "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."
On Sept. 30, Muslim shuttle drivers were notified that they would have to begin clocking out and clocking in for prayer breaks or risk being suspended or fired. The drivers were told of the policy change as they entered the prayer room one day, according to the union, without any notification to the union about a change in contract.
The union noted that non-Muslim employees don't have to clock out for their mini-breaks for cigarettes or coffee.
Hertz contended that some workers were abusing the mini-break system, lingering long after prayers were finished before going back to work. It was unfair to other, non-Muslim workers, it said. The company said workers were given ample notification of the change and that they would still be paid for the breaks.
The two sides said in September that they hoped to negotiate a solution, but the sides could not agree.
"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."
The union, however, argued that Hertz should have been willing to negotiate the matter in front of a third-party arbiter while allowing the workers to continue to earn a living wage.
"It was very, very frustrating," Thompson said. "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."
Broome said that some of the workers had accepted the company's offer and returned to work, but the union said it is proud to stand behind those who did not.
"These workers, who had to leave Somalia, come to U.S., get whatever low-wage job they could get, to then have to make the decision between their livelihood and their dignity and their religion, Hertz put them in that incredibly impossible box," Thompson said. "I am incredibly proud to represent these workers that have taken a stand for what is right and just."
Hertz stood by its decision, which Broome said 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 negotiate contract terms for the shuttle drivers. Both parties agreed that two- to three-minute "mini breaks" would not require clocking in and clocking out.
The union has alleged that Hertz broke that agreement by suspending the employees, while Hertz claimed that the offenders were taking breaks "orders of magnitude longer than mini-breaks."
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.
Thompson said the union will continue to pursue the issue by filing a grievance the National Labor Relations Board and a religious discrimination complaint through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, claiming that Hertz violated workers legal and civil rights.