In Cargill labor dispute, Colorado finding sides with fired Muslim workers
Colorado’s Labor Department said Cargill appears to have changed its rules on employees taking prayer breaks at a meatpacking plant there, a finding that contradicts what the company has been saying about a situation that led to more than 100 Muslim workers losing or quitting their job late last year.
The state sided with the workers, who were mostly from Somalia, in case after case, finding them “not at fault” for workplace changes that led to the dispute. In doing so, the state decided to award unemployment benefits to 114 former Cargill workers who filed claims.
About 150 employees walked off the job at Cargill’s meatpacking facility in Fort Morgan last December after being told they would no longer be allowed to take prayer breaks. Praying five times a day is a core tenet of Islam.
Cargill, headquartered in Wayzata, said this was a misunderstanding and that it had not changed its policy at all.
Cargill declined to comment on Colorado’s recent decision to award unemployment benefits. Cargill spokesman Mike Martin reiterated the company’s position that it did not change its religious accommodation policy.
Colorado Labor Department investigators concluded that “on Dec. 16, 2015, the employer changed its policy” to prohibit any prayer breaks, which was a major shift from its previous pattern of usually allowing workers to take a prayer break shortly after making a request.
The employees’ supervisor told the workers that “upper management” had directly ordered the change. Workers had a subsequent meeting with management and were told the same thing, according to the documents.
Regardless of whether a formal policy change was codified, the investigation by the state of Colorado hinged on what supervisors had told the Muslim workers. But key testimony from those supervisors was not included in the investigation.
The state issued subpoenas for testimony from the supervisors and employees’ attorneys, then tried to serve the subpoenas multiple times, said Darin Mullen, the appeals branch manager for the state Labor Department’s unemployment insurance division. “Cargill ultimately prevented those from being served and then withdrew its appeals,” he said.
“Under the Colorado Employment Security Act, you are required to comply with subpoenas,” Mullen said. “But the way Cargill handled it was they argued they needed to be delivered directly to the supervisors. But then Cargill denied access to plant and would not provide home addresses.”
Jaylani Hussein, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Minnesota, said, “We welcome this victory for the Muslim workers and hope it will assist them in some small way as they continue to face economic hardships acutely suffered since Cargill changed its prayer policy.”
The investigation ordered by Colorado regulators also illuminated racial tensions between the Somali workers and union leaders. Local 455 of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters represents the Fort Morgan plant’s workers, but as one decision order stated, “The Somali workers went to the union but the union did not take action.”
Another decision found that “the union and Somali workers do not always see eye to eye and the union does not understand Somali culture.”
Of Cargill’s 2,100 employees at its massive Fort Morgan complex, about one-third are African immigrants or children of African immigrants. Most of the workers are Hispanic.
In the wake of the walkout, Cargill shortened the time period for rehiring workers in January from 180 days to 30 days, including former employees fired for “attendance violation or job abandonment.”
The company employs more than 2,000 people, or nearly 20 percent of Fort Morgan’s population of 11,000, making for a relatively small labor pool. Cargill said it’s rehired some workers terminated during that time period.