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By Rhonda Smith
May 2 — Employers in Colorado, Wisconsin and Minnesota are clashing with Muslim employees over taking prayer breaks at work, raising difficult legal questions.
The Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations recently filed 15 discrimination charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging religious accommodation violations and plans to file more charges, it announced April 28.
“The main issue is that they wanted to pray and weren't given scheduled break times,” attorney Amarita Singh, CAIR-Minnesota's civil rights director, told Bloomberg BNA April 28. A central tenet of Islam requires that believers pray five times a day at designated intervals.
The charges, filed on behalf of 21 Somali-American Muslim workers, involve allegations against AmesburyTruth, a manufacturing company in Owatonna, Minn., and Doherty Staffing Solutions, a temporary staffing agency in Edina, Minn., that referred many of the workers to the company for employment.
CAIR is a national Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C.
Since December, similar scenarios have unfolded between Muslim workers and their employers at a Cargill Inc. beef processing plant in Fort Morgan, Colo., and at Ariens Co., a power equipment manufacturer in Brillion, Wis.
Representatives for both companies told Bloomberg BNA in March and April that they've provided religious accommodations for their employers for many years.
CAIR attorneys said Somali-Muslim workers recently either voluntarily left their jobs at the companies or were fired as a result of disagreements involving scheduling prayer breaks.
Attorneys for workers at the plant in Colorado have filed charges with the EEOC alleging religious accommodation violations. The EEOC does not discuss pending complaints.
Maha Sayed, an attorney in CAIR's civil rights department in Washington, D.C., told Bloomberg BNA April 27 the organization plans to file discrimination complaints with the EEOC against Ariens alleging similar violations but hasn't done so yet.
The 21 employees in Minnesota worked on an assembly line at a manufacturing plant, making hardware products such as doorknobs and hinges.
AmesburyTruth managers told them if they couldn't comply with their scheduled break times they could no longer work for the company, Singh said. The workers, fired in 2015, contend that the terminations violated Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act because they involved religious discrimination, she said.
Truth Hardware, which employed the workers, merged with Amesbury in 2014.
The Muslim workers filed EEOC charges against the staffing agency as well as Truth Hardware because the agency hired many of them and then referred them to the company for jobs, Singh said. “Under the law, they're both responsible for providing religious accommodations.”
Officials with Doherty Staffing Solutions didn't respond to Bloomberg BNA requests for comment. AmesburyTruth officials disagree with the employees' allegations.
The business “complies with all local, state and federal workplace laws,” Kevin Anez, a company spokesman, said April 27 in an e-mail to Bloomberg BNA. “We adamantly deny any wrongdoing related to the pending EEOC charge.”
CAIR wants the company and the staffing agency to undergo training “to become more informed about how to effectively work with Muslims,” Singh said.
“I called the company and asked if they would be willing to talk about it and work something out for both parties,” she said. “They said they didn't want to do that, and that they've accommodated as much as they could.”
In Minnesota, a lot of similar cases are cropping up outside of the Twin Cities area, Singh said, because more immigrant families are moving into rural areas and seeking employment. “For some companies, it's their first time having Muslim employees.”
Title VII prohibits workplace discrimination based on religion. Employers are prohibited from discriminating in all aspects of employment and must reasonably accommodate religious practices or dress, unless it is an undue hardship, the EEOC said in guidance for employers regarding employees who are Muslim or Middle Eastern.
At issue with Muslim employees who request religious accommodations to pray in workplaces is the extent to which employers must or should accommodate them.
“Some employers argue that it interferes with production too much,” because Muslim employees who request accommodations to pray at work must take breaks based on changing conditions such as the time of the year and position of the sun, said Kathy Barnard, a Seattle-based attorney with Schwerin Campbell Barnard Iglitzin & Lavitt LLP.
“If you have an assembly line and every three minutes you have to move a lever or something then, yes, the employer has a right” to say the prayer breaks could pose an undue burden, she said. “But if the employer is saying, ‘We want you to be there all the time,' I don't think that's going to fly. It's fact-dependent on whether they can show that it's a serious disruption.”
Barnard also said that, because the amount of time it takes to pray isn't very long, “a lot of employers just don't make a big deal out of it.”
According to “An Employer's Guide to Islamic Religious Practices,” which CAIR developed, the time it takes to wash one's face, hands and feet with clean water before praying, in addition to engaging in prayer, is usually about 15 minutes.
Religious accommodations have been made the past nine years for Muslim employees who request to pray in the workplace, Ann Stilp, company spokeswoman for Ariens, the Wisconsin power equipment manufacturer, told Bloomberg BNA. About 800 employees work at the company's plants in Wisconsin and Nebraska.
Last May, the company hired its first group of Somali Muslims, she said, and then continued to hire more Muslim employees in the spring and summer. But by October, Stilp said, Ariens had hired about 40 Somali-Muslim employees and this made scheduling prayer breaks “difficult to manage.”
The supervisors were trying to accommodate the Muslim workers as best they could, Stilp said, “but we started getting complaints from other employees about issues of fairness.”
The complaints occurred because, when Muslim employees left their workstations for prayer breaks, their co-workers had to perform their job duties. “It was disruptive to the process,” Stilp said. “If people leave, it will hold up other parts of the plant.”
In January, the company's managers began to enforce more stringently a break policy that requires workers to take two 10-minute breaks per their respective work shift. Some Muslim workers did not agree with the policy and refused to return to work.
Among 53 Muslim employees who received a letter from Dan Ariens, the company's chief executive officer, encouraging them to return to work, 28 chose to remain employed, 14 resigned and 11 were fired because they continued to take unscheduled breaks, Stilp said.
CAIR officials shared another view.
“These two preexisting breaks did not generally align with prayer times throughout the workday,” said Sayed, the staff attorney at CAIR in Washington.
In addition, she said Muslim workers previously had been permitted to complete their daily prayers by leaving the assembly line for breaks one at a time for about five to 10 minutes.
“Based on the information we received from terminated Ariens employees, this did not disrupt the overall flow of operations within the assembly lines,” Sayed said.
A similar issue unfolded in December at Cargill's beef processing facility in Colorado, which employs 2,050 workers.
“We believe what happened in December resulted from an unfortunate misunderstanding on the part of some employees,” Mary Maurelli, a Cargill spokeswoman, said in a statement to Bloomberg BNA. “Cargill has a history of making every reasonable attempt to provide religious accommodation to all employees based on our ability to do so without disruption to our beef processing business at Fort Morgan.”
In December, 11 Muslim workers resigned after they attempted to pray in Cargill's workplace at the same time one evening, Maurelli said.
They all worked in the same area and were told they could go to prayer—but just two or three at a time, “so the production line would not be disrupted,” she said.
Instead, the 11 workers went to prayer in small groups, rotating throughout their work shift. “When the shift ended, they resigned,” she said.
In addition to those 11 employees, Cargill fired about 150 workers at the plant in December for violating the company's attendance policy, Maurelli said. After a disagreement with company managers over prayer break procedures, the workers “failed to show up for work, or call in” for several days, Maurelli said.
“As a USDA-inspected meat processing facility, Cargill's Fort Morgan beef processing plant must meet federal government requirements related to food safety, workplace safety and other federal regulations, and we must meet product quality requirements for our customers,” Maurelli said.
Maurelli also noted that almost 1,800 of Cargill's hourly workers at the plant are represented by Local 455 of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.
Local 455 officials in Denver didn't respond to Bloomberg BNA requests for comment about the conflict between the company and the employees.
“In regard to Cargill, we are currently conducting unemployment insurance appeal hearings with the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment,” Sayed told Bloomberg BNA April 27. “Cargill has appealed the granting of unemployment insurance benefits to our clients,” which amounts to 150 to 200 individuals, she said.
Mike Martin, a spokesman at Cargill's headquarters in Wichita, Kan., declined to comment.
CAIR, along with a law firm in Denver, Rathod Mohamedbhai LLC, represent a majority of the aggrieved Muslim and non-Muslim workers at the meat processing plant in Fort Morgan, Sayed said. “We are exploring all legal options for all clients,” she said.
“During any given workday, the need to pray does not generally arise more than once or twice a shift,” Sayed said. “However, Cargill and Ariens have both recently changed their policies to effectively rescind previous religious accommodations and have also demonstrated an unwillingness to engage in discussions that would result in a mutually satisfactory solution.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Rhonda Smith in Washington at email@example.com
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Text of CAIR's employer guide to Islamic religious practices is available at http://src.bna.com/etm.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued two technical assistance documents last December explaining federal laws that prohibit employment bias against individuals who are, or are perceived to be, Muslim or Middle Eastern (246 DLR A-11, 12/23/15).
The documents, one geared toward employers and the other toward employees, offer examples of actions that can constitute lawful bias, explain federal protections against such discrimination and suggest steps to promote religious accommodation.
Other sources suggest that, when addressing prayer breaks in the workplace, employers should:
Quash harassment or retaliation.“An employer might allow for the accommodation and then not be able to control or regulate the reaction either by supervisors or co-workers who resent the accommodation,” Seattle-based attorney Kathy Barnard of Schwerin Campbell Barnard Iglitzin & Lavitt, LLP said. “So it's important to follow up and make sure there's not harassment or retaliation because of the visibility of the religious practice.”
Be flexible.“It's important for both employers and employees to approach the issue with respect and creativity,” said Joyce S. Dubensky, chief executive officer of Tanenbaum, an organization aimed at ending religious bias. “This might mean adapting existing break practices to make it possible for people to take prayer breaks, or allowing employees who need these prayer breaks to work certain shifts, or exploring other alternatives.”
Be transparent.“If a religious practice cannot be included in the work day without causing what's called an undue burden, the company should clearly communicate this to the employees,” Dubensky said. “It is important that they understand that the accommodation request is being denied because of the company's business needs, and not for any other reason, including bias.”
Don't be reactive.“In general, we recommend that companies move away from thinking about religious accommodation reactively and primarily in terms of litigation avoidance,” Dubensky said. Rather than ask, “Do I have to accommodate religious practices?” she said, companies should ask, “How can I best accommodate the religious practices of my employees?”
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