Amazon’s security contractor under fire for allegedly failing to accommodate Muslim workers

Three workers have filed charges claiming the company retaliated against them for speaking out.

CREDIT: AP/Ted S. Warren, file
CREDIT: AP/Ted S. Warren, file

The security firm that patrols the headquarters of tech giant Amazon is under fire for allegedly mistreating its Muslim workers, with critics claiming the contractor does not appropriately accommodate their faith — and retaliates against those who speak out.

Amazon has touted itself as defender of Muslim American rights in recent months. The company made headlines for being one of several tech companies that condemned Donald Trump’s Muslim ban; CEO Jeff Bezos even vowed to fight the ban in court and on Capitol Hill. Amazon also provides stand-alone prayer rooms for employees who work high-tech jobs within the company.

But Muslims employed by the e-commerce giant’s security contractor, Security Industry Specialists (SIS), say use of prayer rooms was not fully extended to lower-paid officers who patrol Amazon’s headquarters in Seattle, Washington — even though Muslims represent a sizable portion of the roughly 800 security personnel.

More broadly, they claim that SIS — and Amazon — both have a history of mistreating or failing to accommodate those who claim Islam as their faith.

Earlier this year, workers began claiming that SIS employees cannot access prayer rooms throughout the work day, even though devout Muslims typically pray five times a day as part of their faith.

SIS president and CFO Tom Seltz refuted this allegation in an email to ThinkProgress, insisting that staff have always been allowed to use Amazon rooms for daily prayers.

“Our employees assigned to Amazon have always been permitted to access space (when available) to pray on breaks, even before dedicated prayer rooms were formally introduced,” he said. “Before prayer rooms were introduced, employees generally used a vacant conference room or quiet room, when available. This has been the case for the past four years (since we’ve been at Amazon), and the recent addition of dedicated prayer rooms has just made access even easier. We count ourselves as fortunate that Amazon extends this accommodation to our employees.”

“Some employees are told, well, go to your car [to pray.] Some don’t even have a car.”

Participants at the “pray-in” outside Amazon’s headquarters in February. CREDIT: YouTube/Screengrab/SEIU
Participants at the “pray-in” outside Amazon’s headquarters in February. CREDIT: YouTube/Screengrab/SEIU

But at least one SIS employee told ThinkProgress that this access wasn’t adequately communicated to workers. And others noted that the issue runs deeper than having verbal permission from Amazon: SIS employees, they said, are prohibited from using rooms when Amazon employees are in them — as is often the case at the sprawling campus. They also said they are prohibited from speaking to “Amazonians,” as employees of the company are called, making it difficult to ask if a room is free.

Instead, they say managers typically encourage SIS employees to pray elsewhere.

“Some employees are told, well, go to your car [to pray],” Ismahan Ismail, a former SIS employee who now works for Amazon, told ThinkProgress. “Some don’t even have a car.”

She said others are told to go to the end of the Amazon’s massive building to pray. But even that is an obstacle, she said, because the short 10-minute breaks — which often do not correspond with traditional Muslim prayer times — make it difficult to rush to the end of the facility, pray, and return in a timely manner.

Workers also allege that some managers have been insensitive about Muslim holidays. According to workers, one supervisor supposedly told fellow staff that anyone upset about working through a break should “blame the Muslims” who took time off during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. One current security officer on the campus, Abdinisir Elmi, also recounted an incident where a worker was allegedly reprimanded in public for leaving to pray during a meeting.

He also told ThinkProgress that he has become a “professional” at hiding when he prays during his nearly six years with SIS. He says he often retreats to garages and parking lots to pray during the day, fearing that his bosses would reprimand him for taking time to fulfill his spiritual duty.

“They were…trying to say [that] religion is not important,” he said.

He also told ThinkProgress that he has become a “professional” at hiding when he prays during his nearly six years with SIS. He says he often retreats to garages and parking lots to pray during the day, fearing his bosses would reprimand him for taking time to fulfill his spiritual duty.

“You learn ways to hide,” he said.

Disputes over Muslim prayer polices are becoming increasingly common in the United States. In 2016, nearly 150 Muslim employees were fired for refusing to show up for work at a meat processing plant during a heated dispute over prayer accommodations, prompting several employees to eventually file charges. A similar dispute flared up at a manufacturing plant in Wisconsin that same year, when the company suddenly revoked a policy that had previously allowed 53 Muslim workers to take five-minute breaks for daily prayers. In most cases, local chapters of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) operate as negotiators to help resolve the issue.

None of the controversies have involved a company as high-profile as Amazon, however. Amazon declined to offer public comment for this article.

The debate came to a head on February 17, when protestors worked with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) to convene a “pray-in” outside Amazon’s headquarters to draw attention to the issue. That protest was followed by another rally on March 31, when Muslim workers held a press conference and spoke out against what they described as unfair policies and mistreatment in the workplace.

SEIU told ThinkProgress that neither action evoked an immediate response from Amazon.

Documents obtained by ThinkProgress show that three SIS employees filed charges this week with the National Labor Relations Board, claiming the company retaliated against them earlier this month for voicing frustration with company policies.

SIS security worker Abdinisir Elmi is among those who filed the charge, saying that after participating in the protests he was pulled aside by managers, asked if he was helping “the union,” and told that mobilizing was “not good” for the company. He says he was eventually put on suspension for missing work in February — despite the fact that his superiors did not raise concerns until after he started to speak out.

Two other Muslim SIS employees listed on the filing also claim their hours were suddenly cut in the wake of the protests. ThinkProgress reached out to SIS for comment on the accusations of retaliation, but did not immediately hear back.

Even some Muslim security workers employed by Amazon itself — rather than SIS — report frustrating experiences with management regarding prayer. Ismail, who initially worked for SIS in 2012 before transitioning to an Amazon computer security job in 2013, told ThinkProgress that accessing prayer rooms was much easier when she made the switch.

“I could see the transition from working from SIS to working for Amazon,” she said. “The employees are not treated the exact same.”

But she claims she still encounters road blocks to her religious expression. She said her Amazon manager began tracking the time she spent praying, and claimed she once retrieved her prayer rug only to discover that someone had stepped on it.

“Cleanliness is very important to my religion,” she said. “I feel like that was telling me to get out, in a way. I was isolated from the entire team.”

Amazon told ThinkProgress they are looking into this allegation.

Meanwhile, a sign-on letter is currently circulating among Seattle-area Islamic communities and organizations calling on Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos to ensure that employees and contractors are are able to do their jobs “without sacrificing the duties of their faith.”