30 Muslim workers fired for praying on job at Dell

30 Muslim workers fired for praying on job at Dell

Somalis left workstations at sunset; Human Relations Commission tries to mediate case

By Rob Johnson

The Tennessean, 10 March 2005

Work or pray.

Faced with that difficult decision, Abdi H. Nuur removed his employee badge and walked away last month from his forklift driver’s job at Dell Computer’s Nashville plant. He and 29 other Somali Muslims say they were forced to choose between their faith and their employment.

Now the Metro Human Relations Commission is trying to intervene in a confrontation that pits American-style production quotas against Islam’s requirement that its adherents pray daily when the sun sets.

“They told us that we cannot pray at sunset,” Nuur said. “They told us that we would have to wait for our break.”

He said he explained that while some of Islam’s five daily prayer times are somewhat flexible, the sunset prayer is not. Nor does the sun set at the same time every day.

Big employers in the Nashville area have responded in drastically different ways to their Muslim employees’ requests to slip away from their workstations for about five minutes to pray.

For example, Whirlpool Corp. chose last year to take a similar dispute before a federal jury, which agreed with the company that the employees’ sunset-prayer request created an undue hardship on the La Vergne plant’s production schedule.

According to leaders of Nashville’s Somali community, Dell has been one of several area employers with strong histories of accommodating Muslim workers.

But that arrangement apparently came to an abrupt halt in February, with the firing of 30 workers. They were employed by Spherion, a labor agency that provides workers for Dell’s Nashville operations, according to David Perez, the compliance officer for the Metro Human Relations Commission.

A Dell spokesman declined to comment about the cases, saying the company had not received a specific complaint.

“Dell values diversity in all areas, and that includes religious beliefs,” Dell spokesman Mark Drury said. “The company’s practice is to accommodate religious beliefs, so long as the accommodations are reasonable, don’t disrupt business operations and are consistent with our policies on operating a respectful workplace. Employees are allowed time off with pay to pray. We have traffic-free areas for them to use for prayer.”

Sometimes those religious needs conflict with the business, though. “When granting time off during a shift on a manufacturing line would be disruptive,” Drury said, “we have worked out reasonable accommodations, such as a tag-out procedure when employees can leave the line to pray and return, allowing the next employee time to leave the line to pray.”

But he said he couldn’t answer questions about the 30 Somali workers.

Spherion officials did not return The Tennessean’s requests for comment.

Earlier this week, about a dozen of the fired workers gathered at the Somali Community Center on Thompson Lane to weigh their options. Some want only to return to a job that they say they liked and valued.

Others, such as Nuur, are angry, saying they were forced to leave suddenly and wouldn’t consider a return, even if it was offered. “They told us, if we pray, we’re going to be fired.” He said he felt compelled to pray because of his faith.

“What you have to understand,” said Abdishakur Ibrahim, the imam at a Nashville mosque who has intervened in similar cases, “is that Islam is a religion where there is no separation between faith and life. For many Christians, they may go home and pray. But in Islam there are specific times when you must pray. And for Muslims, not to pray is to disobey God. And people feel that if you disobey God, you will go to the hellfire.”

There are 5,000-8,000 Somalis living in Nashville, Ibrahim said, adding that many of those who are Muslim recognize that they, too, need to be flexible in the workplace.

The Metro Human Relations Commission hopes that it can help mediate a solution. “It would be great if they could reach a conciliation agreement,” said compliance officer Perez. He said a Dell manager had phoned him Tuesday to inquire about the situation. Spherion, he said, had yet to respond.

Meantime, he is drawing up a complaint to be filed with Metro government, based on the report from the Somali workers. If a commission panel finds the claims point out a violation of Metro discrimination codes, the companies could be fined. The workers also could file discrimination complaints with state and federal agencies.

A similar federal complaint turned into a lawsuit that was resolved last year in favor of a local manufacturer.

Whirlpool officials told a federal jury that the company tried to accommodate many of its Muslim workers’ religious requests. For example, menus in the company cafeteria were adjusted, and women were allowed to wear traditional clothing as long as it conformed to safety guidelines.

But Whirlpool said the sunset-prayer accommodation was too onerous for its production schedule. The company forbade workers from slipping off to pray for five minutes, even though the employees pointed out that their immediate supervisors and co-workers often did not mind covering for them.

The Nashville jury sided with Whirlpool that the sunset-prayer request constituted an undue hardship on the employer.

Another large employer in the region said it decided to take a distinctly different approach when its Muslim workers approached management about the need to pray. In 2001, Tyson Corp. opened a processing plant in Goodlettsville, where it packages meats for the region’s grocery stores.

The plant’s human resources director said the plant has two Muslim prayer areas. The company also posts the daily prayer times and accommodates the workers by rotating them off the production lines every evening when the sun goes down.

“Yes, it’s a challenge for some of our managers because they have to move some folks around,” said Tyson’s Gary Denton. But the company is determined to make it work. “The way we look at it, we’re a company of diverse people.”