In a landmark settlement that could change the way Muslims are treated in the workplace, St. Cloud-based Gold'n Plump Inc. has agreed to allow Somali workers short prayer breaks and the right to refuse handling pork at its poultry processing facilities.

The federally mediated agreement is among the first in the nation that requires employers to accommodate the Islamic prayer schedule and the belief, held by many strict Muslims, that the Qur'an prohibits the touching and eating of pork products.

"For this group of Americans at this time in our nation's history, this is a very important outcome," said Joe Snodgrass, a St. Paul attorney who represented workers in the case.

The agreement follows a year-long examination by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and a class-action lawsuit brought in October 2006 on behalf of nine Somali immigrants who worked at Gold'n Plump's poultry processing plants in Cold Spring, Minn., and Arcadia, Wis.

An EEOC attorney said both sides have reached a settlement in principle.

The settlement will include an undisclosed sum of money for some employees; and some workers may receive new offers of employment at Gold'n Plump.

More details of the settlement, including how exactly the prayers will be accommodated, will be disclosed in the next two weeks.

The Work Connection, an employment agency based in St. Paul that hired workers for Gold'n Plump's plants in Cold Spring and Arcadia, was accused in the class-action lawsuit of requiring Muslim applicants for work to sign a "pork acknowledgement form," in which they agreed to handle pork products. It was alleged in the complaint that Somali workers who did not sign the document were not hired.

A spokeswoman for Gold'n Plump confirmed in a written statement that the company had reached a "global agreement in principle" to settle that and other claims and that a formal process must now begin to obtain final court approval for the settlement. Jeff Wold, vice president of the Work Connection, which is based in St. Paul, said his company "categorically denied all the allegations of discrimination" and was "happy to say that this case has been resolved."

Traditional practices

The settlement could have profound implications for the estimated 25,000 people of Somali descent in Minnesota, who began arriving in the Twin Cities in the late 1970s. Many have insisted on adhering to their traditional religious practices, such as praying five times a day or wearing headscarves, even when they conflict with workplace rules.

This spring, six Muslim women who worked at a Mission Foods tortilla factory in New Brighton said they were fired after they refused to wear a uniform that includes pants, which are considered men's clothing -- and improper -- in their home country.

The disputes have ignited debates about whether employers were targeting Muslims, or whether the workers were making unreasonable demands.

The federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 says employers must accommodate workers' religious beliefs, so long as the requests are "reasonable" and do not create "undue hardship" for the employer.

But the vague wording of the act has left a lot of room for interpretation; and some employers, particularly manufacturers, have argued that frequent prayer breaks disrupt work flow and reduce productivity.

Snodgrass, the attorney representing the nine Somali workers, said there is some flexibility within the Islamic prayer schedule. In some cases, the windows for praying can extend several hours; and frequently the prayers last no longer than a bathroom break. He noted that the United States legal system has long accommodated the demands of Christians.

"There is a reason why your children have never gone to school on Christmas or Easter, and yet Muslim children go to school on the final day of Ramadan," said Snodgrass. "What this case does is highlight that, for a minority, no matter how unpopular or popular they are, there has to be accommodations if they are reasonable and practical."

Chris Serres • 612-673-4308