All Work and No Pray

A Muslim worker at the Ford plant faces a difficult choice

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The Ford assembly plant in Hazelwood is a working-class world of pickup trucks, beer guts and 24-hour assembly lines, where deer season is sacred. It is an unwritten policy that each November, every employee can get a day off to hunt. The 60-year tradition is so ingrained in plant operations that supervisors often approach employees, asking them what day they will need off.

But Talibdin El-Amin, an assembler at the plant, doesn't like to hunt. Nevertheless, when his supervisor asked whether he needed time off to hunt deer, El-Amin said yes.

He lied. He had no intention of going hunting. He just wanted time off for prayers.

El-Amin, a devout Muslim, has battled his supervisors for almost a year to get two hours off on Fridays so he can go to the mosque for midday prayers.

To followers of Islam, praying five times a day is not just an obligation called for in the Quran; it is a way of weaving the spiritual into daily life. It was a message El-Amin grasped in 1990, seven years before he converted to Islam. At the time, he was still Mark Bastian, a freewheeling sailor whose Southern Baptist roots had been watered at Mount Carmel Baptist Church in St. Louis. For a whole month, the 22-year-old man had been out to sea in his U.S. Navy vessel. Finally docked at port in Alexandria, Egypt, he planned to let loose some energy in the streets and bars. But when he stepped off the ship at noon, the city was eerily quiet. "Everything was shut down," El-Amin recalls. "I found out it was for jummah [Friday prayers]. I didn't completely understand, but I knew then that it was something very big. I know it even more now."

But for El-Amin and Abdul Raqueeb White, a Muslim co-worker at the plant, practicing Islam at work hasn't been easy. Even though Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 requires employers to make reasonable accommodations to the religious needs of employees, the Hazelwood plant has resisted. Both El-Amin and White say they have suffered retaliation in the form of write-ups and suspensions for insisting that their rights be respected. Both have filed complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

White, who has worked at Ford for 16 years, settled his complaint in May, but only after the company suspended him for 30 days and an arbitrator from the EEOC and a representative from the Council of American-Islamic Relations in Washington, D.C., intervened. Now, White is once again able to pray at the mosque on Fridays.

El-Amin, whose case is still pending at the EEOC, hasn't been quite as fortunate.

The problem of Friday prayers began in January, says El-Amin, when his seniority finally allowed him to switch from the graveyard shift to days. For the father of four children, it was a long-awaited chance to have a normal schedule. The only problem was finding time to integrate Friday prayers into his workday. Initially El-Amin used personal days, but eventually those started to run out. So he requested an extra hour at lunch one Friday a month to go to the mosque. The request was denied.

"I was told, 'We are here to make cars,' and I understand that, but it doesn't absolve Ford from its responsibility to observe law," El-Amin says. "When they wouldn't let me take one day a month, I decided to exert my energies to secure all my rights that I believe are awarded to me under the law. All I have asked for is two hours, one day out of the week, and, mind you, I have offered to use my breaks, come in early and stay late. They are not losing anything, but they still said no."

Last month, he says, his immediate supervisor gave him time off to attend prayers, but he was written up later for leaving the job without permission. "I had witnesses who heard him tell me I could go," El-Amin says. "But I still got suspended for two weeks." El-Amin says he is being told that because his job is different than White's, a staffing shortage is a real concern.

But that hasn't stopped the company from accommodating workers' passion for deer hunting.

El-Amin says that when he requested two hours off on Friday, Nov. 9, to attend prayers, he was denied, but a week later, he was allowed the entire day off, ostensibly to go hunting. "They wouldn't accommodate me to observe prayer for two hours," says El-Amin, "but they would let me off for the entire day for deer hunting."

Plant managers refused to discuss the matter and referred all calls to Ford's south-central headquarters in Dallas. Harold Allen, a company spokesman, says the plant considers the needs of its employees but also must weigh them against the ultimate goal -- the production of cars. Allen says there is little flexibility to let El-Amin off the line for two hours, no matter how important the reason.

"When you have a group of people running an assembly line, it is almost impossible to find someone to cover for another person for just two hours," Allen says. "We really have tried to accommodate him. We do take every request like this very seriously. I believe this plant has taken the extra step. We offered him the option to work nights, and he declined."

El-Amin finds the offer unacceptable. "Basically what they are telling me is that every Muslim who works for Ford will be relegated to the night shift and be denied the benefits of a normal day schedule," he says. "And they will be denied this because they are requesting two hours to go to the mosque."

He has also decided to continue to fight. "Even in the trying to get there I am rewarded -- if I made two steps and fell, I believe Allah would reward me for those two steps," he says.

Nevertheless, Ford's offer to switch El-Amin to a night shift may be enough to satisfy the law's requirements. "The law is very clear-cut that accommodations must be made, but it is less clear on what that accommodation should be," says Joshua Salaam of CAIR. "It could be something as outrageous as 'We can move you to Alaska and you can work on the night shift.' That would be enough to satisfy the law."

Lynn Bruner, director of the EEOC, says the relevant legal issue may boil down to just how much of a hardship it is for the employer to accommodate an employee's request for religious services. "The course of action is different based on each type of employer and the impact it would have on the whole operation," Bruner says. "We would take into account size and finances and the number of employees. It really is a case-by-case basis."

In this case, says Jerry Foster, president of the United Auto Workers' Local 325, the accommodation the plant offered isn't fair. "The plant is really penalizing the man because he wants to go on days and practice his faith," says Foster. "Basically he is standing on the right side of the government because it has given him the right to practice his faith, as well as the union's side because it is written in the contract."

Maybe so, but UAW plant chairman Willis Courtoise wouldn't know. Courtoise, an avid deer hunter, is the union representative charged with defending El-Amin before his superiors. Nevertheless, Courtoise admits, "I have not read in the contract about religious accommodations because I have never looked for it."

Courtoise says he wishes El-Amin well in his quest to pray at the mosque on Fridays but adds with a shrug, "It is up to Ford, because they sign the checks."

As for days off to hunt, Courtoise bristles at the notion that they will ever end. "We've been doing that for years, and we are going to keep doing it," he says, "I don't see anybody complaining about it. This conversation is over."

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