The Hertz rental car company is firing two dozen Somali Muslim drivers at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport for refusing to clock out for daily breaks during which they normally prayed.
The drivers are among the 34 Hertz employees the company suspended indefinitely late last month for praying on company time. Observant Muslims pray five times a day, and the employees claimed the company was infringing on their religious freedom by not being flexible to their needs.
Media reports varied on the exact number of fired employees, with some reporting it was 25 and others reporting it was 26.
The fired workers drove the company's cars to and from the airport for cleaning and refueling, according to the Seattle Times, and did not clock out when they went to pray. Hertz also said some of the fired workers were taking longer than the 10 minutes allotted for a break. Employees get two breaks per eight-hour shift.
Hertz had said the suspended workers were violating a two-year-old policy requiring employees to clock out before engaging in personal activities, such as praying. Teamsters Local 117 took up the drivers' case, filing an unfair labor practices suit saying the company was not following an agreement reached last year saying employees would not have to clock out for prayer.
During negotiations, nine of the original 34 suspended drivers signed agreements saying they would clock out on time and returned to their jobs.
Union officials told the Times the two sides were unable to reach an agreement that would have returned the remaining workers to their pre-suspension status under which they would not have to clock out to pray.
Teamsters spokesman Paul Zilly said Hertz gave the workers an ultimatums and when they refused, the company terminated them. Zilly said if Hertz believed employees were breaking the rules, they should have dealt with them individually instead of as a group.
"There may have been some taking longer than 10 minutes, but why single out the entire group based on their religion?" he said.
"We feel like we're being punished for what we believe in," former Hertz employee Ileys Omar, who prays five times a day, told KOMO News. "It's five minutes. It's not as big deal as the company's making it."
Hertz spokesman Rich Broome said the company had made it clear to the suspended workers that if they wanted to return the work they would have to agree to the clock-out terms.
"We're disappointed that the rest of the transporters did not take us up on what we thought was a reasonable resolution of this matter — reserving their right to pray during paid breaks," Broome said. "We felt clocking out is a fair way to maintain order while keeping our operations running smoothly."