Hertz Moves to Fire Suspended Muslim Workers

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Last Thursday, 34 suspended Muslim workers of Hertz Rent-a-Car received an ultimatum by mail. Either sign the letter by Oct. 18--committing the employees to clocking out for prayer breaks, something they had refused to do--or be fired.

In the thee-page letter, Hertz defended itself from claims of religious discrimination that have been made by the shuttle drivers and their union, Teamsters Local 117, setting off heated debate on DW and elsewhere. "We are not denying you, or any other Muslim employee, an opportunity to pray at work," it said. And "Hertz does not intend to dock your pay" for such breaks. Hertz also was not micromanaging, according to the letter, and was treating employees like adults.

All that corporate self-defense out of the way, Hertz got to the bottom line--its "operational needs," which the Muslim employees and their untimed breaks were apparently causing. As such, the employees, who work at Sea-Tac Airport, had been suspended since September 30.

The deadline came and passed Tuesday night. Eight workers complied, according to both Hertz and the union. Twenty-five did not.

Late yesterday, company spokesperson Rich Broome told DW that the hold-outs were not yet officially fired. The company still had a "faint hope" that the workers would come around, he said. But the company was planning on delivering termination letters today.

Tracey Thompson, secretary-treasure of the local, said she did not expect the 25 to change their minds. According to Thompson, the employees don't want to clock out, despite being paid, because they feel monitored during their religious rituals. The prayers, done on a rug in a corner of a Sea-Tac garage, take only a few minutes, the union says.

When Hertz's Broome spoke with DW two weeks ago, he said Hertz's line in the sand was intended to prevent extended breaks, but declined to say whether workers were, in fact, spending tons of time away from their duties. Yesterday, however, he claimed "breaks were lasting 30 to 45 minutes," and not because workers were praying the whole time. Hertz' other 300 odd employees were telling the company that "it's an unmanageable situation," Broome said.

"I don't have any evidence of that," Thompson replied. But she said that, if true, the proper way to deal with that would be to discipline individual workers who were causing the problem, not Muslim employees as a whole.

That may be true, but it's important to pin down the facts, given the heated charges that are flying over whether (on one side) Hertz is discriminating or (on the other) whether Muslim employees are creating an unfair burden for everybody else. Those details should emerge as a complaint filed by the union with the National Labor Relations Board gets resolved.

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