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Ariens begins enforcing prayer break policy

Wednesday January 27, 2016

None of the 53 Somali employees at Ariens Co. have been terminated since the company began to enforce its break policy Monday, but some have opted to resign, the company said.

The company declined to say how many of the Muslim workers have left the company.

The 53 Somali workers who practice the Muslim faith walked off the job earlier this month in protest of a break policy that they say infringes on their ability to pray two of their five daily prayers.
In a meeting earlier this month, the snowblower and lawnmower manufacturing company announced it would begin enforcing a mid-1980s policy that limits breaks to 10 minutes twice a shift. Previously, Muslim employees were allowed to leave their work station to pray two of their five daily prayers. The enforcement of the policy began this week, the company said.

The decision affects 53 Somali employees hired last summer from a Green Bay job fair and employment agency. Many of them work assembly-line positions.

As of last Friday, Ariens. Co. said 44 of the 53 Somali workers had returned to work. In a statement released Monday night, the company said it would be "irresponsible" to provide numbers on the status of the Somali workers, as the number has been changing each day.

"Some employees have chosen to stay and work within the break policy, and some are choosing to resign," the Ariens statement said. "At this point it is an internal matter between Ariens Co. and employees. We will provide an update when it is clear but we are taking this time to work with employees on an individual basis for the best possible outcome."

Ann Stilp, an Ariens Co. spokesperson, told USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin Tuesday that the company is trying to be as flexible as possible with the employees at the company, which employs about 2,000 people, half of them in Brillion.

"There are language barriers," Stilp said. "We've brought in an interpreter. We're working with individual employees to determine what their intention is right now."

Stilp said the company began to hire the Somali employees in groups last spring, a process that continued through November.

"As we continued, the word got out, and we hired more," she said.

By October, Stilp said the company hit a "critical mass" once 35 to 40 of the employees began to work and take regular prayer breaks.

"It got to be an issue at that point," she said. "We (had) to adhere to the policy."

Prior to the company's decision earlier this month, Muslim employees had been allowed to take an additional prayer break during their shift, a break dependent on the time of the year and the time of the day the employee worked.

Last week, Ariens CEO Dan Ariens said allowing the unscheduled five-minute breaks would cost the company more than $1 million in lost production each year. The company has provided an on-site prayer room.

"They work as a team," Ariens said at a press conference on Jan. 18. "Our team leaders glow about how well they've performed as a group, with this one issue of the extra breaks being one of our challenges."

On Jan. 18, seven of the Somali employees met with the Council of American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR, in Minneapolis.

Jaylani Hussein, the executive director of the council's Minnesota branch, said the organization spoke with Ariens Co. officials on Friday. Stilp said the telephone call was a "good conversation" but said the company is not changing its position.

"We've been trying to negotiate with the company," Hussein said. "We want to see if they would push back the policy and see if they would pursue options that would work for the employees and the employer."

Hussein told USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin on Tuesday that Ariens is violating federal law.

According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, an employer does not have to accommodate an employee's religious beliefs or practice if doing so would cause "undue hardship to the employer." Undue hardship includes cost measures, workplace safety, workplace efficiency, infringement on the rights of other employees or requiring other employees to do excess hazardous or burdensome work.

"If an employee requests religious accommodations, the employer has to accommodate," Hussein said. Pursuing legal options against Ariens Co. is being "internally debated," he said.

Hussein also said several Somali employees have reported bullying, harassment and intimidation "on and off" since they began working for Ariens Co.

"Sometimes management would interfere and make good decisions on behalf of the employees being bullied, and sometimes they would be completely dismissed," he said.

Ariens Co. officials said the company would investigate and address any such allegations.

"If there are specific issues of harassment, we certainly want to hear about them, and we'll investigate them," Stilp said. "That's unacceptable."

She said Ariens Co. is reiterating with its employees that they should work with human resources to address any problems.

"Overall, the relationship between our Muslim-Somali employees and non-Muslim-Somali employees has been good," she said.

Following the company's decision earlier this month, Ariens Co. officials presented unemployment papers to its employees in case they chose to leave.

"In hindsight, we should not have given them papers," Dan Ariens said last week.

Stilp said Tuesday the purpose of the papers was to introduce to the Somali employees the process to apply for unemployment.

"These employees don't necessarily speak the language well and do not know what the unemployment benefit is," she said. "We had those papers available, and it could be misinterpreted."

Moving forward, Hussein said the council will continue to "apprise" the Somali employees about the situation.

"If they get let go for requesting prayer (breaks), then we'll look at all legal options," he said. "... I just want people to put themselves in (the Somalis') shoes and imagine if their religious practice came under fire from their employer. ... Imagine if you never had to work Sunday and now your company is saying you get to have Monday off, but you want to go to services on Sunday."

Ariens Co. reiterated Tuesday that the Somali workers are "good employees."

"We've invested training time in them," Stilp said. "Our goal is to make sure that we can manage the best possible outcome for the company and our employees."


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