AVON, Colo. - Ten former Wal-Mart workers who are primarily Muslim and from West Africa have filed discrimination complaints against three stores in Western Colorado, saying managers treated them differently from other workers and denied them scheduled prayer breaks.
The workers, who filed the complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, said store management changed in January 2009, and the new managers suddenly started punishing and, eventually, firing them after years of working for Wal-Mart.
"All the sudden their work wasn't good enough," said Brendan Greene, an organizer for the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition who has been coordinating the former employees' complaints.
A Wal-Mart spokesman denied the accusations of the complaints and said the company makes every effort to encourage diversity at their stores.
"The allegations just don't accurately reflect the working environment in these stores," Wal-Mart spokesman Greg Rossiter said.
The workers said previous managers had made an effort to accommodate for the workers' prayer breaks, turning an old break room into a prayer room. But after the change in management, Greene said, the room was locked and employees could no longer schedule their breaks to coincide with prayer times.
Didier Kane Barrault, a former night shift worker at a Wal-Mart in Avon, said a group of African employees at the store approached the manager about the treatment in late June. The manager agreed to meet with three workers, but refused to meet with the whole group.
Barrault said the manager's response was that the workers were free to leave if they did not like the treatment. Barrault said a wave of firings followed the meeting.
Greene met three employees of the Avon store last summer, then heard similar stories from employees at other stores. Greene said it shows a pattern of systemic problems with Wal-Mart management, and the 10 workers who have filed complaints are working on behalf of the whole community.
"When it was all said and done, in the Rifle, Glenwood and Avon Wal-Marts, more than 40 people have either been fired or resigned because of the pressure that has been applied to them," Greene said.
Rossiter said the Avon Wal-Mart store has continued to hire associates of West African descent, and three have been promoted to supervisory positions. Rossiter also said store managers have a portion of their bonus tied to diversity goals.
Ophelia Hinojosa was a night shift supervisor at the Avon store until she quit in April because she did not agree with the treatment of the workers. Barrault said two other supervisors quit for the same reason.
Hinojosa said the employees were hard workers but the new management cut hours and expected them to do more work.
"They cut down on the people, but expected everything to be 100 percent," Hinojosa said.