Finding resolution: Cargill Meat Solutions offers answer to 150 fired employees after prayer break misunderstanding | TheFencePost.com

Finding resolution: Cargill Meat Solutions offers answer to 150 fired employees after prayer break misunderstanding

Bridgett Weaver

Cargill Meat Solutions in Fort Morgan, Colo., will allow more than 150 Muslim employees to reapply for their positions following a mass termination in December.

The Wichita-based company let its employees go after a misunderstanding about the company policy on prayer breaks escalated.

The Somali Muslim employees are being represented by the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Cargill representatives reviewed the no-call, no-show termination policy which led to the terminations and decided to allow the workers fired in the dispute to reapply for their jobs after a 30-day period, rather than the company policy of 180 days.

A CAIR news release on Jan. 8 said the organization welcomes the change.

"We hope this means that Cargill will continue to consider changes to other policies, particularly the policy on prayer accommodation. Our clients were denied reasonable accommodations and there has been a pattern of hostility to their daily requests for prayer accommodations," said Jaylani Hussein, executive director for the Minnesota chapter of CAIR.

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Hussein and another CAIR representative, Jennifer Wicks, traveled to Colorado this past week to meet with the fired employees.

The issues began Dec. 18, when some Somali Muslim employees asked for a break to pray.

"When they requested their prayer breaks, a majority of them did not get breaks to pray," Hussein said. "The supervisors on hand told them, 'We aren't going to be able to accommodate you — You should just go home.' "

About 200 Somali employees did not report to work for the second shift Dec. 21, said Mike Martin, director of communications for Cargill.

The employees met with Cargill management and the union that represents the plant employees Dec. 22 to come to an understanding, but they left without a resolution.

"Based on company policy, employees that do not show up or call in for three consecutive days, with Monday, Dec. 21 being the first day, were at risk for termination," Martin said in an email. "Efforts were made to communicate to employees who did not show up for work to ensure they understood their jobs would be at jeopardy."

Some of them did come back to work following the attempts.

When employees did not show up for work Dec. 23 — the third day — termination procedures for about 150 employees began, he said.

"While reasonable efforts are made to accommodate employees, accommodation is not guaranteed every day and is dependent on a number of factors that can, and do, change from day to day," Martin said. "This has been clearly communicated to all employees."

Islamic faith and corporate policies also tangled in September 2008, when 230 Muslim employees walked out of the JBS meatpacking plant in east Greeley.

The problem sparked during the Muslim holiday Ramadan. Observers of the holiday don't eat or drink during daylight hours in the holy month, but break the fast after sunset prayers.

Employees at the time said they hadn't received word the previously agreed-to prayer time was pushed back 30 minutes.

According to past Tribune reports, some workers at that time said supervisors locked them out of bathrooms and stopped them from using water fountains.

JBS officials would not comment on the religious accommodations in the meatpacking plant, but have said in other reports the 2008 problems have since been resolved internally. The company put prayer rooms in the meatpacking plant, and it allows Muslim employees to switch their work shifts during Ramadan.

The Equal Employment Opportunities Commission brought a suit against JBS in 2009 for the Greeley case, and for a similar case in Nebraska. The Nebraska case was settled in JBS's favor, but the Colorado case remains in litigation.

In July, a federal judge denied JBS' motion for summary judgment to have the suit thrown out. The suit claims JBS discriminated against and unlawfully terminated Somali Muslim workers in Greeley.

Martin maintains the Cargill meatpacking plant, which still employs about 400 Muslim employees, always makes reasonable attempts to accommodate religious practices.

"At no time did Cargill prevent people from prayer at Fort Morgan, nor have we changed policies related to religious accommodating and attendance," Martin said.

Hussein said he thinks there was a misunderstanding about the policies.

"There's an education gap or an awareness gap, and oftentimes the employees didn't have a clear understanding of where that line is for a reasonable accommodation," he said.

The goals were to get the 150 ex-employees back to work as soon as possible and to clarify the prayer policy. At least half of that has now been met.

"If we can get our employees back to work, and we can clarify the prayer accommodations that are available, then that would be a good resolution for both of us," Hussein said.

Cargill information

According to its website, Cargill provides food, agriculture, financial and industrial products services to the world. For more information on the company, go to http://www.cargill.com.