Title VII of the Civil Rights Act is pretty clear on its prohibition of discrimination based on religion. But identifying religious discrimination isn't always so cut-and-dried. Firing employees for wearing headscarves? Discriminatory. Firing employees for refusing to transport alcohol? Perhaps a tougher case.
Of course you can fire anyone for substandard work or non-performance. But what if that non-performance is due to the exercise of religious beliefs? Or, as a letter to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleges, what if the employee's performance was satisfactory, but only because they were shirking their religious duties?
No Time to Pray
A letter to the EEOC from Muslim Advocates claims Muslim Somali and East African workers and Amazon facilities in Minneapolis "experienced discriminatory treatment, hostile work environment, retaliation, and constructive discharge in violation of Title VII." Specifically, three of MA's clients (referred to as Ms. A, Ms. B, and Ms. C) failed to offer adequate time for its Muslim employees to pray.
"Ms. A, Ms. B, and Ms. C's charges allege how employees feared taking time away to pray, since that lost time would reduce a worker's 'rate' or how many items a worker packs per hour," according to the letter. "Employees who regularly fell short of the rate -- simply because they attempted to observe their religious obligations to pray -- faced repercussions such as 'write-ups' that could lead to termination."
One employee got her first write-up for missing the assigned rate during Ramadan (when she was refraining entirely from food or drink) and became so fearful of missing it again that she stopped perform ablutions before prayer, broke her fast, and even eschewed bathroom breaks. "[W]orkers also reported being told by Amazon management to quit when they requested time off for Eid al-Fitr," MA claims, "one of the most important Muslim holidays."
An Amazon representative told Business Insider that diversity and inclusion were "central to our business and company culture" and workers could "pray whenever they choose," adding, "Prayer breaks less than 20 minutes are paid, and associates are welcome to request an unpaid prayer break for over 20 minutes for which productivity expectations would be adjusted."
The letter also alleges that Somali and East African workers are regularly passed over for promotions in favor of white workers solely on the basis of their race and their national origin -- also illegal under Title VII -- and that white workers regularly receive better duty assignments and better treatment than their Somali counterparts. Attorneys for the Muslim employees are asking the EEOC to investigate "systemic violations of Title VII" at Amazon's Minneapolis facilities, and allegations that Amazon "has cultivated a hostile work environment and an environment of discrimination against its Muslim Somali and East African workers."
If you're hoping to avoid similar claims or investigations, talk to an experienced employment attorney about how to make reasonable accommodations for your religious employees.