Cargill will change its hiring policy — allowing employees to be potentially rehired 30 days after termination, not 180 days — in response to a walkout by Somali workers in Colorado.
After a dispute over Muslim prayer time, about 150 employees at Cargill's sprawling Fort Morgan, Colo., plant didn't show up for work for three days — grounds for termination. They were fired. Some of those workers claimed they weren't allowed to take prayer breaks, while Cargill claimed that it was still following its policy allowing the breaks.
Minnetonka-based Cargill said in a statement Friday that it will change the hiring policy at all of its North American beef plants, allowing former employees terminated for "attendance violation or job abandonment" to be considered for rehiring 30 days after being fired. The workers would have to reapply for their jobs.
"We believe the change in our beef business policy related to how quickly a former employee may be eligible to reapply for positions at our beef plants is a reasonable update to something that's been in place for quite a few years," Cargill Beef President John Keating said in a statement.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), which has been representing many terminated Somali workers, said it welcomed Cargill's change in hiring policy, though it criticized Cargill's prayer break policy as ambiguous.
Praying five times a day is a fundamental tenet of the Muslim faith. The Fort Morgan plant, which employs 2,100, has long had two "reflection rooms," where Muslim workers can take short, usually 5-minute, prayer breaks.
On Dec. 18, some Somali workers didn't get the chance to take prayer breaks, which CAIR says was the culmination of long-standing tensions over prayer breaks at the plant.
Cargill said that on that day, 11 Somali workers in one part of the plant all wanted to pray at once during the second shift. Normally, the company allows only one to three to go at a time during a shift so as not to interfere with meat production.
Cargill initially said 10 Somali workers resigned at the end of the shift after the dispute and that 180 didn't call in or show up for the first three days of the following workweek, and were thus terminated. On Friday, Cargill spokesman Mike Martin said the number of workers actually terminated was 150, not 180, and that 30 workers had called in sick or were on leave or vacation, giving them valid reasons for not being at work.
"The terminations at Fort Morgan appear to be based on a misunderstanding, or misinformation, about a perceived change in our religious accommodation policy that did not occur," Keating said. "Allegations that we were not going to allow prayer any longer are false."
CAIR, a Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization, said it had discussions with Cargill's attorneys last week. "While we welcome the changes to the termination rehire process, because our clients want to return to work and support their families, this does not resolve the prayer accommodation denial and the ambiguity of the current policy on prayer," Jenifer Wicks, CAIR's litigation director in Washington.
Jaylani Hussein, CAIR's Minnesota executive director, said in a statement that there has been a "pattern of hostility" to prayer accommodation requests at Fort Morgan.
Cargill refuted that, saying in a statement that "the vast majority of religious accommodation requests are routinely granted during each of the plant's two weekday work shifts." The breaks, which are granted based on production line staffing, are not guaranteed and are not part of the meal and break periods outlined in Cargill's contract with Teamsters Local 455, the company said. Teamsters representatives have not returned requests for comment.
Cargill, the largest U.S. private company, is one of North America's largest beef producers, operating eight major plants, including six in the United States, which together employ 18,000 workers. The Fort Morgan plant slaughters cattle and produces boxed beef.
Since the Somali workers were terminated, it's been "challenging" to run the Fort Morgan plant at full speed, Martin said. "We're operating at significantly reduced capacity on the second shift."
While Cargill has hired some people since the walkout, the labor pool isn't large in Fort Morgan, a town of about 12,000 people.
Over the past few decades, U.S. meatpacking plants — including in Minnesota — have increasingly relied on immigrant communities for labor. About one-third of Cargill's workers at Fort Morgan are immigrants, or come from immigrant families from Africa, and are predominantly Muslim. Much of the rest of the workforce there is of Hispanic descent.