MILWAUKEE (AP) — An American-Islamic civil liberties group is asking a Wisconsin manufacturer to back away from a policy that doesn't allow an extra break for prayer for Muslim employees.
Ariens Co., however, said Tuesday that it can handle the matter internally and that it's not interested in negotiating through the Council for America-Islamic Relations.
The friction comes after 53 workers left their jobs in protest after the company decided to enforce a policy of two 10-minute breaks per work shift. The workers, all of whom are of Somali descent, who joined the company last summer through an employment services contractor in Green Bay. Ariens — which is based in Brillion, about 90 miles north of Milwaukee — initially had allowed the newly hired Muslim employees to leave their work stations a third time to accommodate Muslim prayers.
But CEO Dan Ariens said the prayer breaks were disrupting production at the lawn mower and snow blower manufacturer, which employs about 2,000 people, nearly half of them in Brillion. He said the best solution was to schedule break time and "stay within the policy of two, 10-minute breaks."
CAIR is asking the company to revert to its previous policy until a resolution can be reached. Jaylani Hussein, of CAIR in Minneapolis, said that the two scheduled break times don't line up with Islamic prayer times, which is why the workers need a third break. He also said that the company accommodates other short breaks, including people stepping away to use the restroom.
"It seems like a crackdown on Muslims wherever they are," he said.
CAIR also has been involved in discussions with Cargill, one of the largest beef producers in North America, over Muslim prayer accommodations at a meat processing plant in Colorado. The company has recently changed a policy to allow fired workers to reapply for their jobs in 30 days, rather than six months. The prayer policy, however, still hasn't been resolved, CAIR said in a release.
Ariens says it has had longstanding religious accommodations for Muslim workers, including a prayer room. Ariens said the two-break policy isn't new and that it was discussed during employee orientation. He said none of the workers have been fired and that he also wants to find a resolution that will allow them all to come back to their jobs without hindering production. He said the employees are valuable and would need to be replaced if they left.
Ariens said the company's position is reasonable and legally sound. He said that if the prayer breaks were only five minutes each — and his supervisors tell him they're often longer — then it would cost the company about $1 million annually.
Hussein said if the company maintains its position, he will take the issue to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
"The law is clear on this subject: They had been accommodated before," he said, "so it's much more difficult to say they are no longer covered."
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