Ariens faces complaint from fired Muslim workers

Dispute over prayer breaks led to terminations

The Council on American-Islamic Relations has filed complaints on behalf of 15 Muslim workers fired from Brillion-based Ariens for taking breaks to complete their daily prayers.

The organization announced in February it planned to file complaints with the Equal Opportunity Commission. CAIR also announced it was filing a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board.

A letter accompanying the complaint to the Milwaukee office of the EEOC says Ariens, which manufactures snow blowers and other equipment, created “a hostile work environment” and subjected the employees “to a pattern or practice of adverse work terms and conditions throughout the course of their employment.”

Under federal law, companies are required to accommodate “an employee’s sincerely held religious beliefs or practices unless the accommodation would impose an undue hardship (more than a minimal burden on operation of the business).”

In response to the filing, Ariens corporate communications manager Ann Stilp said the company has had Muslim employees for nearly a decade and many continue to work at there.

“Here in Brillion, Wisconsin, it is disappointing that a group based in Washington D.C. is filing an EEOC complaint,” Stilp said. “We have had Muslim employees working for the company for nine years. We currently have 27 Muslim employees who continue to work here, and the company continues to accommodate them with prayer rooms. We respect their faith and we respect the work they do at Ariens Company.”

The company made a policy change in January that required employees to pray only during scheduled breaks. The company said at the time the change affected 53 employees and that it tried to work with employees, with more than 30 staying.

The CAIR letter says employees were allowed to take breaks to pray prior to Jan. 25, adding that the breaks were about five or ten minutes, occurred once or twice per shift and were similar to leaving to breaks for smoking, using the restroom or making a phone call.

The letter says two of the fifteen were given warnings for leaving to pray after receiving permission from their direct supervisor. The company’s manufacturing leader refused to discuss the policy with them, according to the letter, and said they would receive three or four warnings before the company would be forced to make a “bad decision.”

The two were then told to sign a “Resignation Notice Form” and give the reason as a “conflict with company policy and my faith,” the letter says, adding the manufacturing leader said there would be “punishment” if they did not sign. The employees did sign the form, indicating their last day was Jan. 25.

Seven of the employees were called to talk with management on Feb. 1, the letter says, adding they were told they were “troublemakers” and they would be terminated if they continued to request and take breaks. The letter says they prayed again later in the day and were terminated that evening.

The other employees included in the complaint continued to request breaks and receive warnings for doing so and were eventually terminated.

“Because Ariens routinely grants unscheduled breaks to employees for non-religious purposes on a daily basis, it has failed to demonstrate that accommodating and granting…similar breaks for religious purposes would cause an undue hardship” the letter says.

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Arthur covers banking and finance and the economy at BizTimes while also leading special projects as an associate editor. He also spent five years covering manufacturing at BizTimes. He previously was managing editor at The Waukesha Freeman. He is a graduate of Carroll University and did graduate coursework at Marquette. A native of southeastern Wisconsin, he is also a nationally certified gymnastics judge and enjoys golf on the weekends.

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