Federal Panel Sides With Muslim Meatpacking Workers In Colorado Prayer Dispute

Aug 10, 2017

The federal commission in charge of enforcing workplace anti-discrimination laws found a Colorado meatpacking plant violated the rights of its Muslim workers during a dispute over prayer breaks.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) found reasonable cause that Cargill Meat Solutions and labor union Teamsters Local No. 455 violated the rights of Somali workers when it fired nearly 150 of them for failing to show up to work after a walk-out at its Fort Morgan, Colo. beef plant in late 2015.

The dispute flared up during the second shift in late December 2015. A small group of workers said a supervisor at the Fort Morgan beef plant told them they could no longer pray at work -- a practice that until that point the beef plant management allowed. The incident snowballed over the course of three days, with more than 150 Muslim Somali workers joining the original group and refusing to work until the company clarified its prayer policy.

Cargill cited its “no call, no show” policy in firing the workers who didn’t show up. The company maintained that its policy never changed and that the whole situation was a misunderstanding.

Soon after the walkout and firings, workers sought representation from the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). Lawyers with CAIR lauded the EEOC determination, saying the decision now allows the group to seek compensation for workers who lost money from the firing. The fired workers also claimed that their union, Teamsters Local No. 455, failed to take action in the wake of the incident, and that lack of effort was based on the workers’ race, ethnicity and religious identity. The EEOC agreed.

“Cargill’s decision to ban prayer in its Fort Morgan facility came at a heavy price for its Black, Somali, Muslim workforce,” said the employees’ attorneys Qusair Mohamedbhai and Laura Wolf of the Denver law firm Rathod | Mohamedbhai in a written statement. “These hardworking refugees were reliable, committed, and loyal to Cargill.  When Cargill refused to allow them to pray during their breaks, it did so with complete disregard for the destructive impact it would have on their lives.”

A statement from CAIR claims the workers were not only denied prayer breaks, but that prayer rooms were occasionally blockaded to prevent Muslim workers from entering, and that workers were sometimes interrogated after returning from bathroom breaks to check if they prayed while away from their workstations.

A statement provided by a Cargill spokesman says those allegations are false.

“We have had a longstanding commitment to inclusion and diversity, and respect for religious freedom and expression,” the statement reads. “We do what is required by law and go further to provide additional religious accommodation in our U.S. locations.”

The company didn’t indicate whether or not it’s interested in participating in a mediation process with the EEOC and the fired workers.

“We look forward to continuing a dialogue with EEOC to better understand the basis for their initial determination,” the Cargill statement reads.