Ariens Co. is located in a town of about 3,000, a good 40-minute drive from Green Bay, Wisc., so the company has to be creative about staffing its 800 person snow blower and lawn mower manufacturing plant.

“We recruit from 30,40, 50 miles away, all different kinds of workforce,” says CEO Dan Ariens. Last May, right before the busy summer season, the company used an employment agency to hire 53 Muslim line workers who are Somali immigrants. The new recruits lived some distance away from the plant, so the company hired a bus service to transport them to and from work.

The Somalis were good workers and things went fine until around August or September, when non-Muslim workers brought up that the Somali Muslim workers on the line were leaving the line to take prayer breaks. Their Muslim beliefs require them to take prayer breaks at certain times based on sunrise and sunset.*

The issue snowballed and in January, Ariens required that all employees stick to their scheduled breaks, with no additional breaks. After the announcement, all 53 of the Somali Muslim employees walked off the job in protest. Within two days, 39 had decided to return to work. Fourteen resigned.

Of those who returned, seven were fired this week when they continued to take unscheduled prayer breaks at work in accordance with their religion, which structures prayer time around the time of sunrise and sunset.

The local Council on American-Islamic Relations said it is considering filing a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) because of the firings. Jaylani Hussein, executive director of CAIR Minnesota, said that he’d hoped that Ariens and the employees could work something out—ideally, a third scheduled break during the eight hour work shift that employees are willing to punch out for. So far, he says, Ariens has not been receptive to the idea.

Leaving the Line

Upper management at Ariens first learned of issues with unscheduled breaks when employees “raised concerns” about the “fairness of additional breaks” through the employee roundtables,” said Ariens Corporate Communications Director Ann Stilp in an email.

Initially, Dan Ariens says, supervisors didn’t notice the Muslims leaving the line, “but employees would report, ‘Hey, so and so was missing.’”

The reason he stopped the breaks, he says, is because of the cost to the company from work stoppages.The plant, which he describes as “very lean,” is set up with U-shaped cells with anywhere from around seven on a small cell up to 25 people on an assembly cell. “When one person stops, all seven people are slowed or stopped,” he says. “It isn’t just one person.”

Ariens said upper management consulted with Somali employees who had more tenure at the company, as well as the local Islamic American Committee, and got their support before they decided to enforce the two-scheduled breaks policy.

But there was a language barrier between the English-speaking supervisors and the newer Muslim employees, Ariens acknowledges, many of whom spoke little English, and Muslim workers were not always communicating why they were leaving.

The company then hired Somali translators from a local job bank to translate during the meeting when the changes were announced in January. “We got together with [the employees] and we said, ‘Look, we’ve talked about this, we’ve looked at what we do, we know we’re allowing reasonable accommodations for your work and prayer—we need to get back to our two ten-minute breaks,’” says Dan Ariens.

“We said, ‘We know you need to think about this job and you like working here. A week from next Monday, we’re going to start to really enforce our break policy if you choose to walk away. Talk to your family, talk to your prayer leaders, think about what’s right for you and come back and know we have to do what we have to do in order to run our plant.”

What the Law Says

Susan Warner, an employment attorney with Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough, says that if the issue escalates to a lawsuit or formal complaint with the EEOC, Ariens will need to prove two things to be in the clear. It must show that it tried to accommodate employees’ religion within reason. And it must show that the accommodation employees require would cause “more than a minimal burden on the operation of the employer’s business,” as EEOC regulations state.

Warner advises companies to “engage in a dialogue” with employees before making a change that would affect religious accommodations. “To figure out, OK, what are your needs, is there a way you can accommodate them?”

The script might go like this, she says: “‘OK, you guys need to take prayer breaks, is there a way we can make them scheduled? We’ll schedule the breaks for everyone so that you guys will have time to go and have your daily prayers in a way that doesn’t disrupt the line for everyone. That way, we can work it so the workflow and production line can keep going in a way that does not disrupt the entire company.’”

But not all beliefs can be reasonably accommodated, says Warner. For instance, she once represented a hospital that required a worker to shave his beard because it interfered with the safety mask employees wore to prevent infection. The employee, who argued that he could not shave his beard for religious reasons, lost the case because not having the mask on properly would create a safety hazard that prevented him from working in areas of the hospital where he needed to perform his job.

Even then, she said, “my advice to any employer is before you take an action … see if there’s a way to work it out without escalating the situation. Because a lot of the time, usually a consensus can be reached.

“My impression is that [Ariens] does value these employees, and this [breakdown in communication] may be a cultural thing.”

Thomas Wassel, a partner with the law firm Cullen and Dykman, said that what doesn’t cause hardship with one or two employees could be a different story with a dozen or more. “If it’s an assembly line where a certain number of employees take these breaks and the whole factory shuts down, then it may not be reasonable. We really have to evaluate it on a case-by-case basis.”

Similar Cases

This is not the first such case in recent months. In December, about 150 employees walked off the job at a Cargill plant in Colorado after a dispute over their prayer time. After the employees did not show up for three days, Minnesota-based Cargill fired them, then later allowed the workers to reapply for their jobs in 30 days. CAIR also intervened in that case and is still considering taking it up with EEOC.

In 2009, the U.S. District Court in St. Paul, Minn., ordered poultry processor Gold’n Plump to add a paid break during the second half of each shift to accommodate prayer breaks for Muslim employees. The timing of the break was to fluctuate to comply with Muslim religious law, as prayer break times change with the season. “Employers need to recognize the increasing diversity of religion in our country and provide accommodations as required by federal employment discrimination laws,” then EEOC Acting Chair Stuart J. Ishimaru wrote at the time.

Dan Ariens says some employees asked if they could pray right at their work station, causing less of a stop in the line, but the company decided against that. “That becomes a major safety issue in the plant,” says Ariens. “We have forklifts and we have material moving through.”

Hussein says the door is still open for negotiations.

“Our main objective is to get these people to work. That’s what these people want. So lawsuits, and potential filings with the EEOC—all of those things are options at the table but the most important thing for these employees is to just continue working there and be accommodated for.

“But if the company believes the only remedy toward this type of grievance is a legal process, then definitely--as a civil rights advocacy organization, we will help employees pursue those routes. But if at any point the company wants to think about what they are doing and look at other options, yeah it will definitely be back on the table and we will discuss it.”


*In the original version of the story, this sentence said "Muslim law requires" but the wording was later changed to reflect that not all Muslim beliefs require this. Later in the story, a typo in a quote by Dan Ariens said "two-minute breaks" but that should be "two ten-minute breaks"