Mubarek Mohamed says he was working at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport as a cabin-cleaner for about three months when he was told to hand over his badge.
He and five or six coworkers had stepped aside from cleaning up an aircraft for daily prayer -- Islam mandates believers bow in prayer five times a day -- on Friday night. He says he was gone for about five minutes. That’s when he says a supervisor started yelling at him, asking him what he was doing.
“‘You have to come here to work, not to pray,’” Mohamed says he told him. He says the manager yelled at them the whole way back to the plane, saying: "fuck you, fuck you guys."
The manager demanded their badges and told them to “get out of here,” he says.
As it happened, Tuesday was supposed to be a day of action hosted by the SEIU Local 26 Union. Workers and supporters planned to demonstrate outside the Delta offices for their own union and a pay raise.
Friday’s incident meant the rally also became a day to back these fired workers, who, according to the union’s press release, “were fired for exercising their freedom to practice their religion as protected by the law.”
U.S. Aviation, the subcontractor employing Mohamed and his coworkers, tells a different story. The company released a statement Tuesday afternoon contradicting much of Mohamed’s account of what happened; U.S. Aviation says no one involved in this incident was fired last week.
“Last Friday, a small number of Muslim employees were disciplined but not because they practiced their faith,” reads the company statement. “Almost all of our employees are of the Muslim faith, and we knew this would be the case when we started work at the airport almost a year ago in November 2017.”
The release claims the employees “unilaterally decided” to leave an aircraft they were assigned to clean without telling their supervisor. It says workers are afforded “several daily prayer breaks” and “dedicated prayer space,” as well as “multiple and regular breaks throughout the workday to allow for prayer,” but that these workers “failed to take advantage of” them.
The result, it says, was a delayed flight and the inconveniencing of “hundreds of passengers.”
“None of the subject employees were fired, but rather instructed to leave work and return Monday, October 1, to discuss the situation with management. None of the employees did so,” it says.
By late afternoon on Tuesday, word was only starting to spread around amongst the demonstrators that the workers, supposedly, had not been fired. Mohamed says he knows what he heard. Nobody said they'd call him. Nobody told him to come in on Monday. He and his fellow employees are filing complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
This leaves us sorting through two very different accounts of what happened last week. That's "usually the case" in stories like this, says Jaylani Hussein, director of the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations.
“The issue is always around what the company thinks happened, and what actually happened,” he says. At this point, he says, CAIR is still “fact-gathering,” but he’s confident things will make a lot more sense once those specifics come out.
And if the company says these workers haven’t been fired?
“Good,” Hussein says. He’s hopeful that means they can get their jobs back, and they can figure out where to go from here.
“These incidents usually don’t happen because everything is going well,” he says.
In the meantime, this crew will have to wait and see what goes down -- or what people will decide happened in the first place.