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Muslim shuttle drivers suspended in Seattle

SEATAC, Wash. (AP) — Rental car company Hertz indefinitely suspended 34 Somali Muslim shuttle drivers at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport for praying on company time, and the workers’ union is trying to put them back in the driver’s seat after what it calls a sudden policy change.

The drivers are required to clock out, under the terms of a settlement two years ago with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Hertz spokesman Rich Broome said.

“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,” Broome said.

It’s not about pay — break time is paid time — but to ensure workers were staying within the 10-minute time slots, which has been a problem, he said. Muslim workers who clocked out were not suspended.

EEOC attorney John Stanley in Seattle declined to comment on the dispute.

Employees told The Seattle Times it was a change in policy that Hertz began enforcing last week.

One suspended shuttle driver, Zainab Aweis, says she was not aware the rules had changed until she arrived at work Sept. 30 and managers told her and other women who were about to pray that several other employees 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.”’

The workers prayed anyway, she said.

“I like the job,” Aweis said. “But if I can’t pray, I don’t see the benefit.”

Hertz isn’t the only company to take action against Muslims praying. In 2009, a manager at a Minnesota Wal-Mart fired a man because he prayed during his breaks. He was later re-hired at another store when an advocacy group got involved and mediated with the retail giant.

Since 2008, Muslim workers at JBS Swift & Co. meatpacking plants in Colorado and Nebraska have been in a tense dispute with the company over prayer breaks, leading to several firings. Workers alleged the company created a hostile environment for Muslims, including harassment during prayers. They had also requested lunch breaks modified during the holy month of Ramadan. The EEOC subsequently filed two lawsuits in 2010. The company has said it fired workers after hundreds of them walked off the job without permission.

In Seattle, Teamsters Local 117, which represents the workers, is trying to get them back on the job and 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.

The union represents nearly 80 Hertz drivers who earn between $9.15 and $9.95 an hour. They receive no health benefits, vacation or sick leave. About 70 percent of them are Muslims. Observant Muslims pray five times a day.

On Wednesday, a few dozen people from labor and faith organizations protested outside the Hertz counter at the airport, waving signs saying, “Respect me, Respect my religion.”

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