Ariens Manufacturing came under fire from dozens of Muslim employees at its Brillion, Wisconsin, plant when the company abruptly changed its policy of allowing employees to take two prayer breaks during the workday. The change reportedly affected more than 50 employees, and happened on Jan. 14.
While the lawn mower company must set policies it feels will maximize its productivity and profits, the policy change at Ariens came too fast. More than 40 employees left the company after being handed unemployment papers by bosses following complaints about it, according to the New York Daily News.
Before Jan. 14, Muslim employees at Ariens, most of whom are Somali, were permitted to leave the production line and take two five-minute prayer breaks over the course of the day, WBAY reports.
After the policy change was enacted, an Ariens representative said of the matter: "We are asking employees to pray during scheduled breaks in designated prayer rooms. Our manufacturing environment does not allow for unscheduled breaks in production."
A reason for the sudden change may stem from the fact that coworkers of the Muslim employees had to take over their colleagues' duties during those two five-minute breaks, and there were 53 Muslim employees at the Ariens' headquarters plant, the New York Daily News reports.
This may have caused inefficiencies for the company. Employers are not obligated to accommodate the religious beliefs or practices of employees if they cause "undue hardship" to the company, like decreased efficiency, according to the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission.
But if the previous policy was causing problems for Ariens, it follows that the company should have related that fact to its Muslim employees before abruptly changing it. As it stands, only 10 of the 53 employees have indicated they will stay at their jobs, and CEO Dan Ariens released a lengthy statement discussing the company's intentions to work with any employees who wish to return under the new policy.
Ariens could perhaps try to fill those 43 positions with new employees, but this is not what the company has said it wants to do. While there may have been an outcry from employees even if the company had decided to enact the policy change more slowly, it would have at least allowed more time for a dialogue between management and employees.
As it stands, Ariens is now short several dozen employees and many of those ex-employees will file for unemployment. The situation is optimal for none of the parties involved.
While Ariens may opt to leave the new policy intact, the company should stand by the words of its CEO and continue to try to work with employees who choose to return with regard to prayer breaks.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations echoed a similar sentiment, saying on Jan. 16: “These types of accommodation disputes can be resolved in a spirit of respect for constitutionally protected religious rights and for the legitimate needs of both employees and employers."