Seattle Hertz Suspends Praying Muslim Drivers For Staying On Break Too Long

SEATTLE, Wash. (CBS Seattle) – To pray or not to pray? That is the question posed to some Somali Muslims working at Hertz, just as long as they clock out.

More than 30 Somali Muslim shuttle drivers working for Hertz at the Seattle airport were indefinitely suspended over the issue of whether they had been taking too long on their breaks without clocking out, breaks the drivers say are meant to be used as time for daily prayer.

The Seattle Times reports that Teamsters Local 117, which represents the 34 suspended drivers, filed an unfair labor-practices complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, citing that the car rental hub in Seattle failed to notify the union ahead of time of the rule alteration, which was instituted Sept. 30.

There has been no set timetable as to when the matter could be resolved as the issue is under review. The drivers are paid between $9.15 and $9.95 an hour, and receive no health benefits, or any vacation or sick days.

The unilateral changes that were made by Hertz without notifying the union of the matter and attempt to settle violated the collective bargaining agreement between the two sides and endangered the financial livelihood of the Somali Muslim drivers, Teamsters Local 117 Secretary-Treasurer Tracy Thompson said.

Thompson worries that treating the employees “very harshly” under the umbrella of the new policy could result in a punishment as extreme as terminating the 34 drivers, saying that taking away the livelihoods of the Somali Muslim employees currently suspended is “almost obscene.”

“They’ve clearly made it about the religious exercise here and that’s where we have a number of problems,” Thompson told CBS Seattle. “They’ve violated the terms of the collective bargaining agreement, let alone these people’s right to exercise their religious rights during the day.”

But the issue of the Somali Muslim Hertz drivers at the Seattle airport and their break time isn’t a new one. Hertz Spokesman Richard Broome told CBS Seattle that a clock-in, clock-out requirement in a 2009 Equal Employment Opportunity Commission settlement was implemented because the company believed that the breaks were being extended by the suspended employees beyond the necessary time needed to complete their prayers.

The company is not punishing the drivers for exercising their right to pray, he said. Instead, Hertz wants to make sure those five- or 10-minute breaks don’t turn into longer ones under the guise of prayer, adding that there are a number of Muslim Hertz employees in the Seattle area who are following protocol.

“We have a number of Muslim employees in Seattle who clock in and clock out and are gainfully employed, and will remain this way,” Broome said, acknowledging that the company wants to resolve the matters as soon as possible. “At this point, employees not willing to clock in and clock out will remain suspended.”

He added: “Unfortunately, some of these prayer breaks have extended way too long and we felt like it’s important to have procedures for prayers to continue and not have the privilege be abused.”

In the 2009 EEOC settlement between Hertz and the union, the agreement cites the car rental company as respecting the legitimate break times of its employees and “will disturb an employee only in an emergency or when Hertz believes that the employee has either not punched out for break or has been on break for more than the allowed time, which currently ten minutes.”

The NLRB complaint filed by the Teamsters, though never citing specific break time-related issues, outlines how Hertz suspended its employees for engaging in “concerted protected activity.” For now, the NLRB’s regional office will investigate the complaint. If there’s merit in favor of the 34 drivers, there will be a hearing before an administrative judge. About 90 percent of the cases filed to the NLRB are resolved either before or after a legislative hearing, said Nancy Cleeland, the NLRB’s director of public affairs.

But the 34 Somali Muslims remain suspended, waiting on whether the issue that separates their job from their religion will be figured out.


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