By Laura L. Myers
SEATTLE (Reuters) - The Hertz car rental company said on Friday that 26 Muslim drivers at Seattle's airport sent termination letters in a dispute over prayer breaks could still return to work if they signed an agreement over break rules by the end of the day.
A group of 34 workers at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport were suspended three weeks ago for failing to clock in and out for the breaks, a move their union called religious discrimination.
The union organized protests at the Seattle airport's Hertz location and said Muslim employees complained of a hostile work environment. Eight workers have since returned to the job after agreeing to clock in and out
Hertz, which says the drivers were suspended not for praying but for failing to clock in and out, as required under a collective bargaining agreement, sent them termination letters on Thursday.
But Richard Broome, a Hertz spokesman, said the workers could still return to the job if they signed and returned the written agreement by the end of Friday.
"We'll hold up until the end of the day," Broome said.
Officials with Teamsters Local 117, the union representing the Muslim workers, have lodged grievances with the National Labor Relations Board and say they will file religious discrimination claims with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
"It is a major corporation asserting total power and control," said attorney Tracey Thompson, the union's secretary-treasurer.
Washington state law allows employees two paid 10-minute breaks, or one 10-minute break, during an eight-hour shift.
Teamsters attorney Dan Swedloe said the fired workers, who earn between $9.15 and $9.90 an hour, felt "disrespected" and that Hertz implemented a unilateral change when the company suspended them without first negotiating with the union.
The union was preparing unemployment benefits paperwork for the workers, who likely will qualify for six to 12 months of benefits, Thompson said.
Hertz said it had accommodated the Muslim workers' prayer schedule for 15 years at the Seattle airport location and created a designated space for them to pray.
"Clocking out became necessary when there was widespread abuse of break privileges, and to ensure fairness for all of our 320 Seattle airport employees," Broome said.
"The 34 employees were suspended for failing to agree to clock out for breaks which we believe is the fairest resolution to preserve every employee's and management's legitimate interests."
(Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Jerry Norton)