Six former employees of the Hertz Corp. at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport have sued the rental car company, saying that managers routinely demeaned their religion and fired them after imposing arbitrary prayer rules for Muslims.

In addition, the suit alleges, managers walked in on their prayer services to take attendance and repeatedly held them to a higher standard of conduct and more stringent discipline than their nonpracticing Muslim co-workers of East African heritage. Five of the plaintiffs are Somali-American, and one is of Ethiopian heritage.

"Before 2007, everything was OK, we got respect and we didn't have any problems," said Nadif Ketibe, 32, one of the fired workers. "New managers started coming in and everything started changing, and we were upset because they were harassing and abusing us."

He and the other fired workers now drive taxicabs.

Their allegations are bolstered by a memorandum issued in May by the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) asserting that the workers were "harassed and terminated" because they were black and/or Muslim and were fired in retaliation for opposing discrimination.

After a failed conciliation meeting held by the EEOC in September, it notified the fired employees that they had the right to sue.

The terminations occurred in 2007, but the employees were awaiting the outcome of the EEOC inquiry, which continued for years as the agency sifted through additional allegations of discrimination against Hertz filed in 2008, 2010 and 2011, said Darren Sharp, one of the workers' attorneys.

Besides the six workers who lost their jobs, the suit contends that "from 2007 through 2010, Hertz terminated or constructively discharged numerous East African practicing Muslim employees because of their religion, race and national origin and because of their complaints of discrimination."

Richard Broome, Hertz's executive vice president of corporate affairs and communications, issued a comment late Wednesday afternoon, stating that Hertz had conducted "a cursory review of the complaint and we will have no comment pending litigation other than to state that when the facts of this are known, we are confident the lawsuit will be decided in our favor."

The workers cleaned and serviced Hertz vehicles, said Ketibe, who was a team leader before he was fired. When they went to prayers, "the manager would come into the prayer room … checking everyone's badge," he said. "The prayer room is only for praying people. In my religion, when I am praying, I am not supposed to be distracted by anything."

In addition, the manager wore shoes in the prayer room, against Muslim practice, he said.

The managers also disparaged the prayers in discussions in the break room and issued a new prayer policy, setting precise times for the prayers, disallowing them during the lunch break and requiring all the Muslims to sign the policy, the suit says. The policy stated that failure to comply with any part of the prayer policy could lead to discipline, "including termination," it says.

The Muslim workers said they had not been consulted and refused to sign it. During the same week, there was a dispute over overtime, and within a week of refusing to sign the policy, five workers were fired.

The company accused them of engaging "in a work strike without any justified reason," the suit said. "The allegation was baseless," the suit contends. "No employee struck. Every one of the plaintiffs had legitimate reason for not working the overtime."

Before their termination, all five had consistently met Hertz's performance requirements and none had received any form of warning or admonishment, the suit said. A sixth plaintiff lost his job in 2009.

Religious bias alleged

The suit contains other accusations. A senior manager allegedly told one worker of East African heritage, "If you pray continuously, you will make us lose money and no Muslims will be hired." A Hertz human resources worker allegedly told an employee, "Find people who are not Muslim so we can hire them." A Hertz manager was quoted as having told Muslim employees, "Take a check home or take your religion and walk off."

A manager allegedly told one Muslim, "Your religion is lying. The Qur'an is lying. You're a liar," and "Your religion is stupid."

Ketibe, who was married with one child at the time of his termination, said he received unemployment insurance for six months. "I had a bad time," he said.

Abdiraxman Abdi-Sheikh, who also lost his job, said the fired workers were out of work for up to two years. He also became a taxi driver.

Randy Furst • 612-201-5522

Twitter: @randyfurst