Sixteen Muslim workers brought a discrimination lawsuit against a Michigan automotive supply company, claiming their former employer required them to choose between keeping their jobs and observing religious practices central to their faith.
Last year the Muslim employees walked off the job at Brose Jefferson following a dispute over break times during the holy month of Ramadan, according to Pitt McGehee Palmer & Rivers, the employment law firm representing the workers.
Muslims commonly fast from food and water during the daytime hours of Ramadan, which began on May 26 last year. In Michigan, the fast is typically ends around 9 p.m. when it gets dark. Fasting during Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam.
The former employees worked a shift from 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. at the manufacturing site, where they produced car door latches. At the beginning of Ramadan in May, the men reportedly sent an email asking managers to change their unpaid meal break from the standard 7 p.m. to 9 p.m., enabling them to break their fast at the appropriate time.
Some of the workers involved in the dispute have been employed at Brose Jefferson for over five years. According to the law firm, in previous years the request to adjust meal times were honored during Ramadan.
But last year was different.
The law firm said that during a pre-shift meeting last May, the plant’s production supervisor announced that the company could no longer accommodate the Muslim workers’ request because, they claimed, if they did so for one religion, they would need to accommodate every other religion.
“The production manager informed us that we would need to choose our religion or our employment,” former machine operator Dulal Ali wrote in a complaint filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
The 16 men decided to quit that same day. Their lawyers said the workers “involuntarily resigned.”
“For these devout Muslims, the only alternative was to leave the workplace en masse before the start of their shift that day,” Beth Rivers, co-counsel for the workers, said in a press statement.
Cary S. McGehee, another lawyer representing the workers, told reporters that the company claimed making accommodations for Muslims this year would be too disruptive to production. But McGehee notes that this explanation doesn’t pan out, since the former employees worked independently at different stations ― not on a production line that would shut down without them.
McGehee also noted that the workers offered to take only a 20-minute break at 9 p.m. rather than the standard 30 min break ― an offer that was reportedly rejected by the company.
“Under the law, an employer is required to grant a worker’s request for accommodation due to religious practices/beliefs, unless the accommodation request would cause the company an undue burden,” McGehee stated. “I personally think that our current presidential administration’s hostility towards people of different religions races and cultures, especially Muslim and people of Middle Eastern descent, has emboldened people who also feel this way to believe that they can express and act on their prejudices with impunity.”
In a public announcement, the company said that reasonably accommodating Muslims during Ramadan isn’t new or objectionable to the Brose Jefferson plant: “Unfortunately, this year, a small percentage of Muslim production and temporary agency workers were not satisfied with Brose’s proposed accommodations during Ramadan. They chose to walk off the job rather than discuss other accommodations that would not unduly impact Brose’s production,” the statement said. “Brose does not intend to litigate this matter in the press, but does contend that the facts as stated in press release issued by the former workers’ attorneys are incorrect. Brose intends to vigorously defend any claims brought against the company.”
The employees filed their complaint against Brose Jefferson under the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging they were discharged based on their religion and national origin. Depending on the outcome, the workers hope to later file a civil rights lawsuit in federal court.