Cargill pays $1.5M settlement for Muslim workers at Fort Morgan, Colo., plant fired in prayer dispute
Greeley, Colo., beef plant faced similar allegations
Cargill Meat Solutions has agreed to pay $1.5 million to 138 Somali-American Muslim workers who were fired from their jobs at a Fort Morgan, Colo., plant after they were refused prayer breaks.
JBS USA faces similar allegations from a 2010 suit filed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on behalf of hundreds of Muslim and Somali former employees. A ruling is still pending on the suit. Another unrelated lawsuit alleging discrimination against a former human resources supervisor for his religious beliefs and nationality at the beef plant in Greeley was filed earlier this year.
DENVER — A big U.S. meatpacker has agreed to pay $1.5 million to 138 Somali-American Muslim workers who were fired from their jobs at a Colorado plant after they were refused prayer breaks, a federal anti-discrimination agency said Friday.
Cargill Meat Solutions, a division of Minnesota-based agribusiness company Cargill Corp., also agreed to train managers and hourly workers in accommodating Muslim employees’ prayer breaks at its Fort Morgan, Colo., beef processing plant, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said.
Wichita, Kan.-based Cargill denies wrongdoing but agreed to settle to avoid further litigation, the federal agency said. The dispute dates back to the firings of the workers in late 2016 after management rescinded policies allowing Muslim employees to take short breaks for prayer.
In 2017, the agency found that the workers had been harassed and discriminated against for protesting the unannounced policy change that denied them opportunities for obligatory prayer. Hundreds of Somali-Americans work at the plant in Fort Morgan, Colo., about 50 miles southeast of Greeley.
In a related announcement, a Teamsters union local that was supposed to represent the workers will pay them $153,000 to settle discrimination complaints.
The federal agency said it determined that Teamsters Local Union No. 455, based in Denver and in Fort Morgan, failed to advocate for the Muslim workers in their dispute with Cargill and even harassed them because of their race, religion and national origin. The workers were dues-paying union members.
Union officials denied wrongdoing, but the local unit agreed to pay the workers, undergo training in handling grievances, and publicize employee rights to be free of discrimination based on race or national origin.
“In its capacity as a bargaining representative for its members, labor unions have an obligation to represent their members regardless of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age or disability,” Elizabeth Cadle, the federal agency’s regional district director, said in a statement.
Like other U.S. firms that employ Muslim line workers at meatpacking and processing plants, Cargill managers must balance religious accommodations with demands of processing meat in an operation that frequently runs 24 hours. Managing possible disruptions not only slow production but can create safety issues for line workers.
JBS USA faces similar discrimination allegations from a 2010 suit filed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on behalf of hundreds of Muslim and Somali former employees who claimed the company engaged in a pattern and practice of discrimination and failure to accommodate the employees’ religious needs. The suit stems from a 2008 incident during Ramadan, when the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission began investigating JBS.
Muslim employees who went on prayer breaks were fired or disciplined for violating the union contract by walking off the job without authorization, according to JBS management. The former employees said they were going for post-fasting prayers in accordance with an agreement made with the company.
The suit was brought before a court in summer 2017 and a ruling is pending. After the 2008 incident, JBS officials set up prayer rooms for Muslim workers and began releasing them in short intervals around sunset to conduct prayers.
“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,” Cargill Meat Solutions president Brian Sikes said in a statement.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim advocacy group, and Qusair Mohamedbhai, a Denver attorney who represented the workers praised the settlement.
Mohamedbhai said in a statement that he welcomed “Cargill’s commitment to continue to communicate its longstanding prayer accommodation practices.” ❖
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