Prayer on the assembly line
A Wisconsin assembly plant has begun the year embroiled in a controversy over prayer in the
Beginning last spring, Ariens Co., a manufacturer of lawn mowers and snowblowers, hired 53 Somali immigrants to work at its factory in Brillion, WI. Ariens had allowed the men, who are Muslim, to leave the assembly line twice a shift to perform two of the five daily prayers required by their faith. The company provided a prayer room, and other workers filled in for them during the breaks, which lasted five minutes.
Then, in mid-January, the company changed its policy, explaining that the “manufacturing environment did not allow for unscheduled breaks in production.” (In Islam, prayer times vary, depending on the position of the sun.) Employees can pray, but only during each shift’s two, regularly scheduled 10-minute breaks. Additionally, the company said it will look for ways to move Muslim employees to shifts that better match prayer times.
The Muslim employees protested. In the end, 32 chose to stay with the company and comply with the policy, 14 resigned, and seven were fired for continuing to take unscheduled prayer time.
According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), an employer must reasonably accommodate an employee whose religious beliefs or practices conflict with work requirements, unless doing so creates an undue hardship.
The EEOC defines reasonable accommodation as flexible scheduling; voluntary swaps of shifts or assignments; lateral transfers or change of job assignments; and modifying workplace policies. While an employee may seek permission for prayer time or a religious display, such requests are more likely to create an undue hardship than other types of accommodation, since they may directly affect the workplace environment.
If an accommodation would impose more than minor costs, the employer need not provide it. For example, time spent changing schedules is considered a minor cost. Payment of overtime—for example, to an employee who is willing to work a longer shift to accommodate a co-worker’s Sabbath—is not considered a hardship, if it’s infrequent. However, an employer does not have to hire additional employees or pay regular overtime to accommodate an employee’s religious practices.
Cost is not the only consideration. An accommodation will be deemed a hardship if it harms the morale of other employees, reduces efficiency in other jobs, infringes on the rights of other workers, creates safety concerns, or requires co-workers to take on extra work that is burdensome.
Is Ariens being “reasonable”? We think so.
Regardless, manufacturers nationwide will likely face similar issues sooner or later. Complaints to the EEOC of religious discrimination have increased 51 percent from 2005 to 2014. And, according to the Pew Research Center, the percentage of Americans adhering to non-Christian faiths—Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism—is increasing, from 4.7 percent in 2007 to 5.9 percent in 2014. At the same time, the percentage of Christian Americans is decreasing, from 78.4 percent to 70.6 percent.
Manufacturers would be wise to have policies in place before controversy erupts.