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Originally published October 6, 2011 at 8:31 PM | Page modified October 7, 2011 at 10:27 AM

Hertz suspends praying Muslim shuttle drivers

Thirty-four Somali Muslims who drive airport shuttle buses for Hertz were suspended Friday over a dispute over praying on the job.

Seattle Times staff reporter

quotes It shouldn't matter what you're doing, if you're not working while clocked in, it's... Read more
quotes This is not a religious matter so long as the company is willing to accommodate prayer ... Read more
quotes Welcome to America! Now try to work with the way we do things here. This isn't Somalia... Read more

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In the three years she's worked as a shuttle driver for Hertz at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, Zainab Aweis, had always taken time out of her shift each day to pray.

An observant Muslim, she prays five times a day — with one, sometimes two of those prayer times falling during her shift.

"That was the one benefit of the job," the 20-year-old said.

On Friday, she and 33 other drivers — all of them Somali Muslims — were suspended indefinitely from their jobs after they took religious breaks to pray while at work without first clocking out.

A spokesman for Teamsters Local 117, which represents the workers, said it is trying to get the workers back on the job.

Both the company and the union late Thursday said they were waiting to hear back from the other.

While the drivers were allowed two, 10-minute breaks during their work shifts during which they could pray, Teamsters officials said managers had agreed in negotiations that workers would not have to clock out and in, though the contract itself does not address the matter.

And the workers and their union said Hertz had previously not required that workers clock out for prayer. The union said it has filed an unfair-labor-practices complaint with the National Labor Relations Board against Hertz for failing to notify the union in advance of what it called a policy change.

But Hertz said the rules aren't new; that it had been trying for some time to enforce the terms of an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission settlement it reached with the workers two years ago that required them to clock out.

A Hertz spokesman said the workers had been repeatedly told they needed to clock out and that the 34 suspended workers had not complied.

"We felt it was reasonable for our Muslim employees who need to pray a couple times during the workday to clock in and clock out," said Rich Broome, spokesman for Hertz.

Broome said it's not about pay — break time is paid time — but to ensure that workers were staying within the 10-minute time slots, which has been a problem.

He pointed out that Muslim workers who clocked out were not suspended.

On Wednesday, a few dozen people from area labor and faith organizations protested on behalf of the workers outside the Hertz counter at the airport, waving signs saying, "Respect me, Respect my religion."

The Teamsters represents about 79 drivers at Hertz — about 70 percent of whom are Muslim — earning between $9.15 and $9.95 an hour. They receive no health benefits, vacation or sick leave.

Aweis said she was not aware the rules had changed until she arrived at work on Friday and managers told her and six other women who were about to pray that several other workers had been sent home that day for praying.

"He said, 'If you guys pray, you go home,' " Aweis recalled.

"I said, 'Is that a new rule?' And he said, 'yes.' "

They prayed anyway, she said, contending that managers stood over them taunting and disrupting them.

"I like the job," Aweis said. "But if I can't pray, I don't see the benefit."

Mohamed Hassan, of the Somali Community Services Coalition, said the workers cannot afford to be away from their jobs. "They need to pay rent and buy food for their children."

Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or lturnbull@seattletimes.com

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