Break Time Disputes Put Religious Diversity in the Spotlight

By Bill Leonard Oct 1, 2008
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A labor dispute between Muslim workers and meat processing plants operated by JBS Swift & Co. over the tim​e allotted for prayer breaks has again raised questions on how employers should accommodate the religious beliefs of their workers.

The dispute involves several hundred Somali workers who wanted time to pray during work hours. The two meat processing plants in Greeley, Colo., and Grand Island, Neb., normallyallow for the short breaks. However, problems arose during the 2008 Islamic holy month of Ramadan when Muslim workers requested a break at sunset.

During Ramadan (which ends Oct. 1, 2008), prayers at sunset are considered the most sacred by devout Muslims. Hundreds of workers walked off the job at both plants complaining that the employer did not allow adequate time for the sunset prayers and did not respect their religious beliefs. According to several sources, JBS Swift then fired nearly 200 workers at the Colorado plant and approximately 100 at the Nebraska facility.

Both the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union and the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) filed religious discrimination complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The complaints went immediately into mediation. Attorneys for the employers and the workers declined to comment on cases under mediation.

Swift Meats, which was acquired by Brazil’s JBS SA in March 2008, has faced earlier problems with Muslim workers and prayer breaks. In 2007, dozens of workers from Somalia walked off the job over the same issue. Those workers eventually returned to work.

However, workplace issues for Muslims aren’t exclusive to JBS Swift and appear to challenge many employers.

Complaints Continue

A report released by CAIR on Sept. 24, 2008, shows an increase in 2007 of complaints of workplace bias against Muslims. According to the study, employment discrimination claims involving Muslim workers increased by 18 percent, with 452 cases reported in 2007, compared to 384 in 2006. Researchers for CAIR also found a 34 percent increase in reports of discrimination against Muslims who were seeking employment and an 8 percent rise in religious accommodation complaints.

While accommodations for prayer breaks and time off during Ramadan can affect all businesses, the issues have grabbed the attention of employers in the food and meat processing industry. In September 2008, managers at the Tyson Foods Plant in Shelbyville, Tenn., reached a compromise with the UCFW and plant workers and will now observe the final day of Ramadan, known as Eid al-Fitr, as a paid holiday.

A tentative agreement allowing Muslim workers with Gold’n Plump Poultry Inc. to take short prayer breaks was announced on Sept. 10, 2008—the same day JBS Swift dismissed the workers in Colorado. The EEOC helped mediate the settlement with Gold’n Plump, which is based in St. Cloud, Minn.

Attorneys for the workers called the case “a landmark settlement” and claimed it could set a precedent for similar cases, a characterization Gold’n Plump’s attorneys disagreed with.

“The outcome was based solely on Gold’n Plump’s unique set of circumstances and there was nothing precedent-setting about it,” the statement released by Gold’n Plump read. “Many other companies have had prayer accommodation requests at their production facilities, and some have agreed to broader accommodations than Gold’n Plump.”

Accommodation Confusion

Many employers struggle with how to best accommodate employees’ religious beliefs. The law protecting employee rights to practice their religious beliefs is fairly clear and sacrosanct, according to employment and diversity rights experts; the regulations are much less so.

“The law is pretty straightforward on what constitutes religious discrimination,” said Michelle Weber, assistant director, communications and religious diversity in the workplace for the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding. “However, the standard is fairly low and the regulations are vaguely written on what exactly reasonable accommodations and undue hardships on businesses should be.”

Some employers have claimed that allowing a large number of workers to take a break for prayers would shut down their production lines and disrupt their operations. And some courts have agreed with that argument. In the 2004 case, Farah v. Whirlpool, attorneys for the employer persuaded a jury that prayer breaks for 40 employees posed an undue hardship.

Weber believes the issues of religious accommodations will continue to increase and become more complicated for employers.

“If you look at the immigration and employment patterns, we are seeing more workers coming from African and Mid-East countries entering into jobs like food processing which have been held by Latinos,” she said. “So an issue like prayer breaks for Muslims is something employers must understand and be prepared to deal with.”

Other employees who object to what they see as preferential treatment for workers receiving prayer breaks can complicate the problem further. Several workers at the JBS Swift plant in Nebraska stopped work to protest the breaks provided to Muslim workers.

Weber says this type of reaction from co-workers indicates a lack of communication and understanding of the employer’s obligations.

“There appears to be a communication breakdown somewhere … line managers and supervisors are not explaining the situation or [don’t] understand what they must do in a situation like this,” Weber said.

She suggests that businesses review their policies carefully and have a plan in place for responding to employee requests for religious accommodations. The EEOC provides guidance and materials on its web site. Groups like CAIR also have guidelines and information for employers.

“I believe one of the best things employers can do is train their managers and supervisors and provide them with the information and tools necessary,” she said. “And employers need to communicate how and when religious accommodations can or can’t be made.”

Weber also says that relaying the information to all employees is critical. Events like town hall meetings where employees can ask questions and discuss the issue openly can work well too.

“But what is really needed are statements that clearly outline the business needs of the company,” she said. “It’s important to show that religious accommodations like prayer breaks are a business decision and a need of the organization and not preferential treatment.”

Bill Leonard is senior writer for SHRM Online.

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