Cargill will pay $1.5 million to 138 terminated employees to resolve charges that its managers violated the Civil Rights Act by refusing to allow Somali-American Muslim workers to pray during their breaks at a meatpacking plant in Colorado, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said Friday.
The agency said it found reasonable cause to believe the employees were harassed, denied their requests for prayer breaks, and fired from their employment at Cargill's Fort Morgan, Colo., beef processing plant in 2015.
While Cargill said it does not accept the EEOC's findings, it decided to settle out of court to avoid a protracted legal proceeding.
Cargill has reaffirmed its commitment to continue to allow Muslim workers to take short breaks to perform their prayers. Cargill's religious accommodation policy takes into account key business requirements, such as employee and food safety and production-line needs.
"Providing our employees with religious accommodation is an important part of engaging and supporting our employees, and our policy has remained consistent for more than 10 years," Brian Sikes, president of Cargill Meat Solutions, said in a statement.
Qusair Mohamedbhai, a Denver attorney who represented the workers, said he is gratified by the settlement. "We appreciate the collaborative efforts of Cargill and Cargill's commitment to continue to communicate its long-standing prayer accommodation practices," Mohamedbhai said in a statement issued by the Council on Islamic-American Relations.
Minnetonka-based Cargill fired the workers in December 2015. The employees didn't show up for work for three consecutive days, saying Cargill wasn't allowing some Muslims to take prayer breaks. Cargill, which said it has long accommodated prayer breaks, cited job abandonment for the mass termination.
Cargill, the largest private company in the United States, slaughters cattle and makes boxed beef products at Fort Morgan.
The state of Colorado ultimately sided with the employees, finding that the workers were "not at fault" for the changes that precipitated the dispute and granting them unemployment benefits, and the EEOC in 2017 found reasonable cause that Cargill managers had violated the Civil Rights Act. Only a small fraction of discrimination claims get the commission's backing, and the decision set up the possibility of a federal discrimination lawsuit.
The Council on Islamic-American Relations said then that Cargill supervisors had been blocking the doors to the room that Muslim employees used to pray and that the Somali-American Muslim workers were sometimes "interrogated" after their bathroom breaks to make sure they didn't pray while out.
Cargill called those accusations "false" and "inflammatory."
The settlement amounts to just more than $10,000 per worker, minus legal fees.