updated 3/11/2005 6:15:57 PM ET 2005-03-11T23:15:57

Thirty Muslims, most of them from Somalia, walked off the job at the Dell Inc. because they say the company refused to let them take a break for prayer at sunset.

The Muslim workers, who were packaging computers at Dell through a temporary labor agency, are taking the dispute to mediation, both sides said Friday.

Abdirizak Hassan, executive director of the Somali Community Center of Nashville, said the workers walked out of the company's Nashville plant Feb. 4 because they were not allowed to pray.

"We have worked to put them in touch with the proper authorities," Hassan said.

The mediation will be handled by the city's Human Relations Commission. Kelvin Jones, executive director of the commission, said his staff has interviewed the workers, who are expected to file formal complaints by early next week.

The question of how to integrate Islamic prayers into the American workplace is becoming more common, said Ibrahim Hooper of the Council on American-Islamic Relations

Muslims are required by their faith to pray five times a day. Most of the prayer times are flexible, but the sunset prayers must be said at dusk, Hooper said.

"The prayers themselves take only a few minutes," he said.

'Tag out' systems
Hooper said a "tag out" system was being used effectively by other U.S. companies to accommodate its Muslim workers. The policy allows workers to step away a few at a time for sunset prayers.

"In 99 percent of work-related issues there is a ready solution," Hooper said. Washington-based CAIR has also offered to mediate the Nashville dispute, he said.

Dell spokesman Mark Drury said company officials are eager to "find out what happened in this situation." He said the company has a "tag out" policy, and he wants to know if the labor contractor was following it.

Spherion spokesman Byrne Mulrooney said the company was still trying to determine exactly what happened, but he says the company has a good record of accommodating its Muslim workers.

Both Dell and officials from the Somali Community Center say they expect the problem can be worked out through the Metro Human Relations Commission.

Jones said he hopes to resolve the conflict quickly with one or two meetings between the parties and mediators.

"We hope that it ends right there. If not, it goes to the full commission," he said.

The commission would hear the two sides and make a recommendation, but it has no binding legal authority, Jones said.

Dell employs about 3,000 workers at its facilities in Nashville and Lebanon, Tenn., and "a number of contract workers on top of that," Drury said.

Hassan said there are about 5,000 Somali immigrants living in the Nashville area, and he said three local companies employ a lot of Muslims: Dell, Tyson Foods Inc. and Whirlpool Corp.

"Dell is one of the best at accommodating religious practices," Hassan said.

Last year, Whirlpool won a federal lawsuit in Nashville over the issue of breaking for prayer. A jury agreed with the company that allowing all Muslim employees to take a break would be too disruptive at its La Vergne assembly plant.

There have been similar disputes in Minnesota, which has an estimated 20,000 Somalis — the largest concentration in the United States.

Electrolux Home Products settled a federal complaint in 2003 and now allows Muslims workers at its St. Cloud, Minn., freezer factory to break for sunset prayers. Last year, Somalis walked off the job at a Minnesota cell phone company to protest prayer accommodation and other matters.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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