Muslim workers leave Wisconsin manufacturer jobs in prayer dispute

By Brendan O'Brien

MILWAUKEE (Reuters) - Muslim workers at a manufacturer in northeast Wisconsin walked out of their jobs after their employer began enforcing its break policy that does not allow them to pray at the times dictated by their faith, the company said on Tuesday.

Some 53 Somali Muslims left their job on Thursday after Ariens, a tools and equipment maker in Brillion, Wisconsin, began requiring them to pray only during the existing two, 10-minute breaks the company provides during the day.

"We respect their faith, we respect the work they have done at Ariens and we respect their decision regardless of their choice to return to work or not," company President Dan Ariens said in a statement.

As of Tuesday, about 10 employees have told the company that they planned to return to work, according to the company.

Ariens said his company has set up designated prayer rooms and has offered to look for other jobs for the employees that may accommodate their prayer obligations.

The company said letting the workers pray during unscheduled breaks disrupts production schedules. In certain circumstances, workers can be prohibited from praying during unscheduled breaks if it causes a "undue hardship" for the business, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Officials at the Council on American-Islamic Relations met with some of the workers on Monday to discuss the dispute. CAIR officials and representatives for the employees were not immediately available for comment.

Nearly 200 workers, mostly Somali immigrants, were fired from a Cargill Meat Solutions [CARGIL.UL] facility in Fort Morgan, Colorado on Dec. 31 after staging a walkout to protest what they said were insufficient prayer accommodations.

(Reporting by Brendan O'Brien in Milwaukee; Editing by Alan Crosby)