Approximately 150 employees, most of them immigrants from Somalia, have been fired from a meat-packing and distribution plant on Colorado’s Eastern Plains for walking off their jobs in protest to a workplace prayer policy dispute.
Ten days ago, more than 200 employees walked off their jobs at Cargill Meat Solutions in Fort Morgan, Colorado.
Some workers later returned, but the majority of them remained off as representatives of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and negotiated on their behalf.
On Tuesday Cargill, through its attorneys, fired the workers who remained off work, said Jaylani Hussein, a representative and executive director of CAIR.
Cargill is a Kansas-based company.
“Some of the fired employees have been working at the plant for up to 10 years”, Hussein said. “Cargill had previously allowed Muslim employees to pray at the plant, even providing a prayer room“, he said.
“Depending on the season, the Muslim workers prayed at different times of the day, typically in about five-to-ten minute blocks”, Hussein said. “But a decision was made at the plant, recently to change the practice.”
“The workers were told: ‘If you want to pray, go home,'” Hussein said.
This caused many of the workers, some of which who support family with their wages, to band together and they decided to walk off their job in an attempt to persuade plant managers to reinstate a prayer schedule.
Hussein and Jenifer Wicks, also of CAIR, were negotiating with Cargill. On Tuesday, they were told of the mass firing.
“These are people who want to work,” Wicks said. “If they’re allowed to return to work, we will continue to negotiate.”
Hussein said company officials told him the mass dismissal was over a “no call, no-show, walk out.”
“It’s disappointing,” Hussein said.
The workers have previously been using time carved out of a 15-minute break period, or time from their unpaid 30-minute lunch break.
Cargill has a policy in place which states that any employee, once terminated, can not reapply for a position for 6 months.
CAIR is continuing its dialogue with Cargill. A teleconference is scheduled for next week, and Hussein hopes that the 6-month freeze is waived and that the employees will be allowed back to reapply even though it goes against company policy.
“The workers continue to express their desire to be allowed a prayer break”, Hussein said.
“They feel that missing their prayer is worse than losing their job,” Hussein said. “It’s like losing a blessing from God.”
Cargill could not be reached for comment Wednesday night. Last week, Mike Martin, director of communications for Cargill, told the Greeley Tribune that “Employees of all faiths are allowed to use a reflection area, but because employees work on an assembly line only one or two at a time can use the area, to avoid slowing production.”
He told the Tribune “Company policies have not changed.”
Martin added in a statement sent to 7News: “While reasonable efforts are made to accommodate employees, accommodation is not guaranteed and is dependent on a number of factors that can, and do, change from day-to-day.”
The workers earn $14-per-hour and up, and are represented by a union, Teamsters Local 445. About 2,000 people are employed at the plant.
According to the station, a law requires employers to reasonably accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs or practices, unless doing so would cause more than a minimal burden on the operations of the business.
The Fort Morgan plant employs more than 2,100 people, reported Al Jazeera, with almost a third from East Africa as of mid-2013.