CINCINNATI — For more than three years, Mohamed Maow worked at DHL Global Mail in Hebron, Ky. He said he earned $11.57 an hour to sort mail and was paid time-and-a-half for overtime.
Maow, 27, a refugee from Somalia who came to the U.S. in 2007, said he never received any negative comments about his performance.
Yet on Oct. 9, after he said DHL supervisors reversed a policy of flexible break times that allowed Maow and fellow Somalis time to pray, he was among two dozen Muslims fired for stopping to say five-minute evening prayers required by their religious beliefs.
“It was a good job,” said Maow, of Florence, who is now unemployed, struggling to pay bills and unable to send money to relatives in Africa, including two children living as refugees with their mother in Ethiopia.
Maow’s is one of 11 complaints filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission – of an expected 24 total – that allege DHL Global Mail fired a group of Somali Muslims for exercising their legally protected religious rights.
The Ohio chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIRhas filed the EEOC complaints on behalf of the fired workers.
“We are requesting all available remedies allowed under Title VII (of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964) and the Kentucky Civil Rights Act, including but not limited to: damages, reinstatement where appropriate and policy changes to ensure that all worker’s civil rights are respected,” said Booker Washington, CAIR staff attorney.
Federal civil rights law calls for “reasonable accommodation” to allow religious requirements to be followed by employees. Salaat, the second pillar of Islam, requires prayer to be performed at five specific times during the day.
Fired workers, three of them full-time employees of DHL and the other 21 part-time who help through two temporary service agencies, said they had been allowed to pray by previous supervisors.
DHL officials at corporate headquarters in Weston, Fla., and at the Hebron location did not respond to requests from The Cincinnati Enquirer for comment.
Reached Wednesday at her Columbus office, in-house DHL counsel Christa Johnson said, “I have no comment at this time.” She had responded in writing to CAIR, which would not provide a copy of the letter to The Enquirer.
CAIR attorney Washington characterized the DHL letter this way in an email to The Enquirer: “DHL claims they fired all of the employees because they were insubordinate, disrespectful and engaged in hostile conduct. The insubordinate claim stems from the entire group going to pray at 7:24 (p.m.). Additionally, they claim several employees responded in a loud and hostile manner to the change in policy.”
Such complaints are not uncommon. In 2012, Muslims filed 785 complaints of the total of 3,811 religious discrimination charges to the EEOC, an agency spokeswoman said Wednesday. In March, the Columbus CAIR chapter filed discrimination complaints with the EEOC against Exel Inc., a subsidiary of DHL, on behalf of 18 Muslim employees who allegedly were fired for praying in the workplace after being denied accommodation.
Muslim workers at DHL in Hebron, many of whom live in a growing community of about 400 Somalis in Florence and Erlanger, had asked their new supervisor to allow flexible breaks to permit prayer. The first 15-minute break normally comes two hours after the shift begins. The second shift for mail sorters in the DHL warehouse then has a 30-minute lunch break at the four-hour mark and a second 15-minute break two hours after lunch.
Workers said they offered to go off the clock for five minutes in order to pray at the required time.
“We do not have a choice,” said Shahira Abdullah, 21, of Erlanger, placed at DHL by a temporary service. “We must stop what we are doing and pray. We were not asking for an additional break.”
For a shift starting at 6 p.m., workers said, the new supervisor said Muslims could not break for prayer before 8 p.m. Still, they said, non-Muslim workers were allowed non-scheduled breaks to go outside to smoke cigarettes.
On the night of Oct. 9, the entire group of 24 stopped working at 7:24 p.m., walked to a corner of the large mail room and began silent prayer in separate huddles of men and women. The sexes are not allowed to pray together in Islam.
The new supervisor then called the three DHL Muslim employees into an office and told them to wait, workers said. According to police reports, the supervisor, Eric Buckler, then called the Boone County Sheriff’s Office and asked for deputies to come to the property to make sure the workers left without incident after being fired.
The Sheriff’s Office’s call for service report does not mention any disorderly behavior by fired workers. “From our investigation, the interaction with the police was very cordial and we can discern no instances of disrespect,” CAIR attorney Washington said.
Once it receives a complaint, the EEOC notifies the employer and offers to mediate, which is voluntary. “Otherwise,” said EEOC spokesman Christine Nazer, “we investigate the charge, which could take approximately six to nine months. … If our investigation determines that there likely was discrimination, we send the charge to our legal unit and determine whether the EEOC will file suit against the employer.”
Some of the Somali Muslim workers have found other jobs. Most remain unemployed.
“First, it’s religion,” said Maow, explaining requirements of Islam. “Second, it’s that you are to support your father and mother and children until they are able to care for themselves. We take work very seriously.
“I have never had this problem before. When I took English class at Cincinnati Public Schools, my teachers always understood when I had to pray. It never was a problem.”