Muslims who worked at a Cargill beef processing plant in Colorado have filed discrimination complaints with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission after a December dispute over prayer breaks.
Minnetonka-based Cargill fired 150 Somali workers at its sprawling Fort Morgan beef plant in December. 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 claims it has long accommodated prayer breaks, cited job abandonment for the mass termination.
Since then, there have been religious discrimination complaints filed with the EEOC on behalf of “many” Muslims who worked at the Fort Morgan plant, said Jenifer Wicks, litigation director for CAIR, a Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization that is representing former Cargill employees. Wicks on Tuesday didn’t have an exact number of EEOC complaints that had been filed. A Denver law firm that specializes in workplace and civil rights issues filed the EEOC complaints along with CAIR, the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
The EEOC could not be reached for comment, but typically the agency doesn’t comment in the early stages of the complaint process.
The complaints from Somali workers primarily allege violations of a federal law that calls for employers to “reasonably accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs or practices, unless doing so would cause more than a minimal burden on the operations of the employer’s business.”
Some Somali workers claimed that on Dec. 18 they didn’t get a chance to leave the production line to pray, which CAIR has said was the culmination of long-standing tensions over prayer breaks at the plant. Cargill, the workers claim, had changed its policy and put restrictions on prayer breaks.
Cargill says that’s not so. “There was absolutely no change in our religious accommodation policy,” said Mike Martin, a Cargill spokesman. “The vast majority of [prayer] requests are granted.”
After the December walkout, Cargill changed its beef operation’s hiring policy, allowing workers who had been terminated for job abandonment to reapply after 30 days — not 180 days, as was previously the case. Cargill acknowledged it was “challenging” to find workers to replace the fired Somalis; Fort Morgan is a town of 12,000 people with a limited labor pool.
Cargill has hired just over 100 workers since the mass termination, not enough to keep the plant running at full capacity. Only 10 of those people were Muslim employees who had been terminated, although about 30 new Somali workers were among the hires, Martin said. Somali workers number about 450 at the Fort Morgan plant, which altogether employs around 2,000.