MINNETONKA, Minn. (KMSP) - Many of the Somali refugees fired by a Cargill meat processing plant in Fort Morgan, Colorado took the first step in filing a religious-discrimination lawsuit. The workers were fired last December after not showing up for work in protest of what they argued were limitations on how much they could pray as part of their Muslim faith.
Some of the 150 workers have now filed complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the first step in filing a federal discrimination lawsuit.
However, Cargill still maintains the controversy is the result of a misunderstanding, that the company’s policy on religious accommodations has never changed: workers can take breaks to pray, but only in small groups so the meat processing line is not disturbed. A Cargill spokesperson told Fox 9 the issue arose when a group of eleven workers in the same area wanted to pray at once, and were told only two or three could go a time.
“The takeaway is that everybody has to compromise a little bit. And I think that’s what’s frustrating about reasonable accommodation just in general,” Penny Phillips, an employment attorney at Felhaber Larson in Minnesota, told Fox 9. “It’s a very complicated issue. You’ve got work. You’ve got religion. You’ve got the need to pray. And then you’ve got an employer saying I can’t run my business when I can’t run my business. So you have two very difficult concepts that are constantly battling each other.”
Under federal law, businesses must provide employees religious accommodations unless the accommodations are an “undue hardship,” which could mean the accommodation was costly, hurt efficiency, or compromised safety.
Phillips believes the case is also a good reminder that employers need to maintain effective communication with employees. “I often tell my clients, don’t listen to rumors. But there’s going to be certain situations you actually need to have your ear to the ground. You actually need to have a response when there may be a misunderstanding. Because it’s like a tidal wave, it’s just keeps building and building and building.”