Last year, a Wisconsin-based company that manufactures lawn mowers and snowblowers began hiring through a local job center.

The company, Ariens, hired several Somali immigrants and continued to recruit. But in the fall, Ariens reached what a company spokeswoman called a “critical mass” of employees who needed to take prayer breaks.

The workers were Muslim, adherents of a religion whose observant followers pray five times a day. Initially, their work supervisors tried to accommodate stoppages for prayer, said Ann Stilp, an Ariens spokeswoman; but the company eventually took a critical look at its break policy.

This week, Ariens announced that seven employees were fired in a dispute over unscheduled prayer breaks. Another 14 more have resigned; 32 Muslim employees decided to stay with the company, Ariens said.

“We handled this with the same straightforward approach we use every day at Ariens Company,” the company said in a statement. “Recognizing there are language barriers and cultural differences, we allowed for extra time. We would have liked for more of the employees to stay, however, we respect their faith, we respect the work they have done for Ariens Company and we respect their decisions.”

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel had reported that Ariens planned to enforce its policy restricting breaks to two, 10-minute stops a shift, and that the company wouldn’t allow unscheduled prayer time.

The nation’s largest Muslim civil rights organization criticized the decision.

“It came out of nowhere and the company did not want to listen to some suggestions and options to make the current breaks more flexible to align with the prayer schedule,” Jaylani Hussein, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations office in Minneapolis, told Reuters.

The announcement from Ariens came just weeks after a similar situation in Colorado, where approximately 190 employees were fired after missing work during an attempt to protest what they said were prayer time changes.

Cargill Meat Solutions — the company involved in that dispute — told the Denver Post that it had tried allow for the prayer breaks. The workers involved in that incident were mostly Somali immigrants, as well, according to the newspaper.

“At no time did Cargill prevent people from prayer at Fort Morgan,” Michael Martin, a company spokesman, told the Denver Post. “Nor have we changed policies related to religious accommodation and attendance. This has been mischaracterized.”

Civil rights laws generally require that employers allow for reasonable accommodations for their workers’ religious practices, once a supervisor becomes aware that that is needed, said Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief.

“The boss typically has to provide a requested religious accommodation, unless it would for example, compromise health or safety, or impose more than minor costs on the business,” he said.

In the case of Ariens, company officials contended that unscheduled prayer breaks could interfere with the production process, according to the Journal Sentinel.

“If I am on a team of 10 assemblers, and two of them clock out for a prayer break, all 10 people have to stop,” company president Dan Ariens said, according to the newspaper.

The company has prayer rooms for them but says it can’t afford to shut down an assembly line for unscheduled prayer breaks.
“The best solution is to stay with the policy we have had for many years, which is two scheduled breaks during each shift. … Those 10-minute breaks should allow enough time for prayer, if someone wants to pray,” said company president Dan Ariens.

One factor that can be relevant in these types of cases, according to Mach: Whether the employer had previously allowed the breaks.

“In other words, if they did it before, without harm to the business, it’s harder to argue that they can’t do it again,”  Mach said.

The Associated Press reported that CAIR officials plan to file federal complaints over the matter, though it was unclear when that would occur.

“There is a lot of flexibility to keep these employees if the company is willing to do that,” Hussein told AP.

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