Wisconsin company criticized for firing Muslim workers in prayer dispute

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A Wisconsin manufacturer came under fire Wednesday for dismissing seven Muslim employees for violating a company break policy that doesn’t provide extra time for prayer and may face a lawsuit from a civil liberties group.

Ariens Co. terminated workers in a dispute that began in January when it moved to enforce a rule of two 10-minute breaks per work shift. The enforcement led to about a dozen Muslim staffers to walk off the job in protest.

At least 32 of the workers involved in the dispute have abided by the company’s policy. Fourteen others resigned and seven were fired on Tuesday, according to Ariens spokeswoman Ann Stilp.

"We would have liked for more employees to stay, but we respect their decision," Stilp told The Associated Press.

However, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations contends the company only wanted “to weed them out.”

"There is a lot of flexibility to keep these employees if the company is willing to do that," Jaylani Hussein said of the employees, who joined the company last summer through an employment services contractor in Green Bay.

The Brillion company allowed the Muslim employees to leave their work stations a third time to accommodate prayers at first. The company then claimed the prayers disrupted production at the lawn mower and snow blower manufacturer.

CEO Dan Ariens said told WLUK-TV Tuesday that production is returning to normal and said reports of Ariens forcing employees not to pray wasn’t the case. He also said the company has had longstanding religious accommodations for Muslim workers, including a prayer room.

“A lot of our Muslim employees have figured out how to pray within our break times,” he said.

Stilp said the company had taken extra time to overcome language and culture barriers and be flexible with the workers, bringing in interpreters and consulting with the Islamic Society of Milwaukee to help mediate.

CAIR has been involved in discussions with one of the largest beef producers in North America, Cargill, over Muslim prayer accommodations at a meat processing plant in Colorado. The company changed a policy to allow workers fired in a dispute over the prayer policy to reapply for their jobs in 30 days, rather than six months. The prayer policy, however, still hasn't been resolved, Hussein said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.