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Hertz sued by fired Muslim drivers alleging religious bias, retaliation

Hertz sued by fired Muslim drivers alleging religious bias, retaliation

SEATTLE—Twenty-five former drivers for Hertz who are Muslim and were fired in October over the issue of clocking out for prayer breaks are suing the company, claiming religious discrimination and retaliation.

According to a lawsuit filed Dec. 7 in state court in Seattle in Hassan Farah et al. vs. Hertz Transportation Inc., all 25 workers are persons “of color” from Somalia who speak English with an accent. Most drove shuttle rental cars for cleaning and refueling during the work day at Seattle's Sea-Tac Airport, while the remainder drove the vans that carried workers to and from the car transport locations.

The lawsuit says that for about 15 years Hertz, employees were permitted to stop work to pray briefly during the day without clocking out. They would typically pray twice during a work day, with the prayers lasting from three to five minutes. The lawsuit says under their Teamsters contract, the workers were not required to clock out before prayers, nor were workers required to clock out for bathroom and smoke breaks.

In 2007, some of the plaintiffs in the case had filed discrimination claims with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which resulted in a May 20, 2009, settlement, according to the lawsuit. The settlement terms were confidential, said plaintiffs attorney Jack Sheridan, of Seattle-based The Sheridan Law Firm P.S.

The lawsuit charges that Hertz airport manager Matt Hoehne and area manager Todd Harris, both named as defendants in the suit, created a hostile work environment that began prior to the 2007 EEOC filings and continued through 2011.

Specific charges listed in the lawsuit include that Messrs. Hoehne and Harris did not call the plaintiffs by name; used a harsh tone speaking to them; put some in unsafe situations; peered into the women's mosque at the airport despite knowing its impropriety; entered the women's mosque for no reason; publicly and falsely accused the plaintiffs with not clocking out for lunch without first checking time cards; and publicly embarrassed them in front of co-workers and customers.

The lawsuit charges Hertz with religious, race and national origin discrimination and retaliation, and seeks unspecified damages.

Mr. Sheridan said the workers, who had been working at Hertz for up to 15 years, had never been told before Sept. 20, 2011, that they needed to clock out to pray.

“There'd never been such a rule in all these years, and basically (Hertz) just targeted the Muslim Somalis,” said Mr. Sheridan.

Between Sept. 20 and Oct. 1, the workers were independently confronted by management and sent home for not clocking out, Mr. Sheridan said. They were then sent letters asking them to sign an agreement that they would clock out. The 25 who did not do so were fired Oct. 20, he said.

Responding to the lawsuit, a spokesman for Park Ridge N.J.-based parent company Hertz Global Holdings Inc. said in a statement, “It is unfortunate that our former employees backed themselves into a corner where a lawsuit is the only option. They were repeatedly offered the option to be reinstated and retain the right to take paid prayer breaks, provided they clocked out first. Several employees recognized that the company had the right to ensure that break privileges would not continue to be abused and accepted those reasonable terms, while the remainder chose termination. It should be clear that this situation has nothing to do with discrimination or religious bias.”

Discrimination claims filed by Muslims with the EEOC have been increasing.