A group of Muslim employees at a Colorado meat-packing plant were fired en masse this week after walking off the job over a dispute about being allowed to pray during work hours, the Denver Post is reporting.
For at least ten years, the Cargill Meat Solutions meat-packing plant in Fort Morgan, Colorado has employed a large number of Muslim workers, mostly immigrants from Somalia. In fact, according to a 2011 Denver Post report, about 500 of the 2,000 workers at the plant are Muslim.
Because Muslims are required to pray five times per day, this creates a problem for Muslim workers if a specific prayer time falls during working hours. In a situation like that, the Muslim worker must make a choice: either keep working and violate a tenet of their faith, or take some time out to pray and risk losing their job.
To accommodate their largely Muslim workforce, Cargill has tried to make accommodations. They even set aside an empty room, calling it a “Reflection Room,” in which Muslim workers — one or two at a time — could go to pray, either during their scheduled break times or during their unpaid 30-minute lunch break.
Fort Morgan plant manager Nicole Johnson-Hoffman said in 2011 that she believed what Cargill was doing was the right thing.
“We believe people have the right to practice their sincerely held religious beliefs and that it’s our obligation and responsibility to do what we can to accommodate that.”
Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, employers must make “reasonable” accommodations to the religious needs of their employees, provided those requests don’t put undue hardship on the employer. And according to Cargill spokesperson Michael Martin, allowing a quarter of the workforce to leave the production line several times per day would basically shut down the entire plant.
“We know that some of our employees would like a guaranteed prayer time every day. That is not the legal requirement, and it would be impractical to accommodate this without shutting down the production line.”
According to Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) spokesperson Jaylani Hussein, the Cargill plant changed that policy last week.
“The workers were told: ‘If you want to pray, go home.’ “
Hussein said that for many Muslims, when given the choice to either pray or keep your job, the only choice is to pray.
“They feel missing their prayer is worse than losing their job. It’s like losing a blessing from God.”
Last week, about 200 Muslim workers walked off the job over the prayer dispute, hoping their absence would convince managers to re-instate the prayer schedule. Cargill refused to budge. About 50 returned to work; the other 150 were fired.
Hussein called the mass firing “disappointing,” noting that the workers, some of whom make $14/hour or more, use their wages to support their families.
The workers are represented by a union, Teamsters Local 445. Their union, together with CAIR, is negotiating with Cargill to get the workers their jobs back. Currently, Cargill’s policy states that fired workers cannot reapply for their jobs for a period of six months after their firing. Jennifer Wicks, also of CAIR, says that if the six-month freeze is waived, the fired workers would like to return to work immediately.
“These are people who want to work. If they’re allowed to return to work, we will continue to negotiate.”
Do you believe Cargill was right to fire the Muslim workers who walked off the job for not being allowed to pray during their shifts? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
[Image via Shutterstock/demidoff]