Muslim Workers Win UI Benefits Despite Cargill's Objections

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By Rhonda Smith

Aug. 11 — A Cargill beef-processing plant in Colorado lost its first attempt to block 114 observant Muslims from receiving unemployment benefits tied to a labor dispute over prayer breaks.

The Colorado Department of Labor and Employment's findings against Cargill Meat Solutions Corp., in Fort Morgan, Colo., “underscore that there was no legitimate business justification for the change in policy or denials of prayer accommodation requests,” Maha Sayed, co-counsel for most of the workers and a staff attorney in the civil rights division of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, told Bloomberg BNA Aug. 9.

“These results further reinforce that Cargill's sudden change in policy was not grounded in business needs,” she said, “but is merely a guise for unlawful discrimination that reflects the current Islamophobic socio-political climate in the United States.”

CAIR is a Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C.

Mike Martin, a spokesman for Cargill Meat Solutions, based in Wichita, Kan., declined to comment Aug. 10. The company is a subsidiary of Minneapolis-based Cargill Inc.

Refugees From Somalia

In December, the workers, many of whom are refugees from Somalia, either quit or were fired for not reporting to work after plant supervisors and managers told them they no longer would be allowed to take prayer breaks during their work shifts. A central tenet of Islam requires observant Muslims to pray five times a day at designated intervals.

About 114 of 150 workers the company dismissed that month applied for unemployment benefits after their job loss, and the state labor department's division of unemployment insurance granted it. Cargill appealed the decisions.

From April to June, hearing officers in the state labor department issued 19 decisions on the appeals in favor of individual workers, citing the Colorado Employment Security Act Section 8-73-108 (4)(d).

It stipulates that employees are entitled to unemployment insurance benefits if they “separate from employment because of a substantial change in the worker's working conditions, and the change is substantially less favorable to the worker.”

Before the remaining appeals could be investigated, however, Cargill withdrew them and appealed to a higher authority, Colorado's Industrial Claim Appeals Office, Darin Mullen, the appeals branch manager for the state labor department's unemployment insurance division, told Bloomberg BNA Aug. 10.

In several cases, the state Industrial Claim Appeals Office affirmed the hearing officers' decisions, Mullen said, and Cargill has appealed those to the Colorado Court of Appeals. He was unsure of how many of those cases are on appeal.

Did Initial Policy Change?

During the hearings, “The question became whether the initial prayer policy had changed,” Laura B. Wolf, the other co-counsel for the Muslim workers and a civil rights attorney at Rathod Mohamedbhai LLC in Denver, told Bloomberg BNA Aug. 9. “That was the ultimate factual dispute in every hearing.”

In one decision, a hearing officer said it was reasonable for the claimant to believe the company had enacted a new policy that was “a blanket denial of the right to pray at work.”

“This forced the claimant to make a decision between staying at work or following his religious beliefs,” the hearing officer said. “The claimant was compelled to follow his religious beliefs. The claimant is, therefore, not at fault for the separation and an award of benefits will be granted.”

The former employees' lawyers have filed charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that are being investigated. The EEOC doesn't discuss pending cases.

The charges allege that Cargill engaged in unlawful religious, national origin and race discrimination, as well as retaliation against employees when the company “summarily terminated those who sought the right to religious accommodation in the workplace,” Wolf said Aug. 11.

Teamsters Criticized

Local 455 of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters faced criticism before and during the dispute.

Almost 1,800 of Cargill's employees at the plant in Fort Morgan are represented by the Denver-based local.

Some workers said, during their testimony at the hearings about unemployment benefits, that they were dissatisfied with the Teamsters.

“The claimant personally asked his union representative for help, but the union did not help him,” one decision states.

Another said, “The Teamsters Union is mainly Hispanic and Somalis feel like the union is not helpful even though the Somalis pay their dues.”

Neither Local 455 representatives nor their counterparts at the organization's national headquarters in Washington, D.C., responded to Bloomberg BNA requests for comment.

To contact the reporter on this story: Rhonda Smith in Washington at rsmith@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Susan J. McGolrick at smcgolrick@bna.com

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