About 150 Muslim employees at a meat processing plant have been fired for refusing to show up for work during an ongoing dispute over prayer accommodations.
The controversy began on December 18, when 11 Somali Muslim workers at the Cargill Meat Solutions plant in Fort Morgan, Colorado requested to visit the building’s prayer room at the same time. Administrators asked the workers to go in smaller groups to keep production flowing, expressing concerns over work stoppages. But while the workers initially complied, 10 resigned at the end of the day, citing disapproval with the policy.
As news of the incident spread, roughly 200 workers — most of whom are Muslim and all of whom are represented by the Teamsters Union — staged a walkout in solidarity with the Muslim workers, many staying home from work for three days. Cargill representatives claim they initially attempted to resolve the issue, but eventually fired workers who didn’t return to the production line.
The workers were told: ‘If you want to pray, go home.’
Cargill insists the issue centers around a “misunderstanding,” and that they need to limit the number of people who can pray at one time because the beef processing plant has to meet USDA regulations.
“At no time did Cargill prevent people from prayer at Fort Morgan,” Michael Martin, a spokesman for Cargill, told the Denver Post. “Nor have we changed policies related to religious accommodation and attendance. This has been mischaracterized.”
But the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a Muslim civil rights group which is representing around 100 of the workers who lost their jobs, told reporters that while the prayer policy may have been accommodating in theory, it was far more rigid in practice.
“The workers were told: ‘If you want to pray, go home,’” CAIR spokesman Jaylani Hussein told the Denver Post.
Reports of the exact number of workers fired vary, ranging from 150 to 190. But all of those let go will face steep hurdles if they want their jobs back: Cargill policy requires fired workers to wait six months before reapplying for their jobs. CAIR is reportedly in talks with Cargill to get the six-month stay waived, so employees can return to their jobs on the plant’s fabrication floor.
CAIR noted in a press release that a similar issue of religious accommodation for Muslims occurred at Swift meat processing plant in nearby Greeley, Colorado in 2008. That incident focused on prayer policies for the Islamic holiday of Ramadan, and resulted in the firing of 100 Muslim workers when hundreds staged a walkout. However, that dispute was “successfully resolved,” according to CAIR.
The Cargill plant still employs around 400 Somalis, many of whom are Muslim, and 2,000 workers overall.