By Laura L. Myers
SEATTLE (Reuters) - Hertz rental car company, facing a religious discrimination suit by 25 fired Muslim drivers, said on Thursday it would "vigorously defend" itself in a dispute involving prayer breaks at its Seattle airport office.
Hertz says the drivers, all of them Somali natives, refused to clock in and out for the 10-minute paid breaks they took twice daily, as required under their union contract, and abused their breaks by failing to return to work promptly.
The lawsuit, filed on Wednesday in King County Superior Court, accuses Hertz of intentionally creating a "hostile work environment owing to religious, race and national origin discrimination" by terminating the drivers at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in late October.
The lawsuit says Hertz employees at the airport have been allowed to take bathroom or smoking breaks for the past 15 years without clocking in or out. It also says Muslim workers among them have long been permitted to take prayer breaks off the clock and that their labor contract does not require clocking out for such breaks.
Their lawyer, Jack Sheridan, said the Muslims workers, whose job it was to shuttle rental cars for cleaning and refueling, typically prayed in privately designated spaces twice daily for three to five minutes at a time.
Besides Hertz, the lawsuit names two Hertz managers as defendants, accusing them of addressing Muslim workers in a harsh tone, peering into the women's designated prayer space for no reason and banging on the women's restroom door.
In a written statement issued on Thursday, Hertz spokesman Richard Broome said, "this situation has absolutely nothing to do with religious or discrimination."
"The employees refused to accept our only requirement -- that they clock out first to ensure that when prayers ended they returned to work promptly, which wasn't happening in many instances," he said.
Other workers suspended for not clocking out on prayer breaks were reinstated after agreeing to the rules, he said.
Sheridan said the lawsuit seeks job reinstatement with back pay for the 25 fired workers, plus damages for emotional pain and suffering.
The workers, whose pay ranged from $9.15 to $9.90 an hour without benefits, are members of Teamsters Local 117, which has lodged grievances with the National Labor Relations Board.
In 2007, several of the same 25 workers filed claims of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and reached a settlement with Hertz two years later.
"Retaliation for opposing discrimination was a substantial factor in the decision" to terminate the employees in October, the lawsuit stated.
(Editing by Steve Gorman and Vicki Allen)