Cargill found to be wrong
A Fort Morgan meatpacking plant and the employee union that represented its workers violated Muslim workers’ civil rights in a dispute over prayer breaks, a federal agency that enforces U.S. anti-discrimination laws in the workplace has determined.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission invited Cargill Meatpacking Solutions and Teamsters Local No. 455 to participate in mediation to resolve the discrimination complaint, according to a copy of an Aug. 3 letter signed by Elizabeth Cadle, district director of the EEOC’s Denver office. A resolution could involve paying the workers lost wages, restoring their benefits, returning them to their jobs, and awarding the workers money to punish the company and the union.
The EEOC ruled in favor of 130 employees who filed complaints against Cargill and in favor of 20 workers who filed complaints against the Teamsters, said Qusair Mohamedbhai, who represented the Somali workers.
The EEOC determined there was “reasonable cause” that Cargill had discriminated against the workers because they were black, immigrated from Somalia and practiced Islam.
The letters said Cargill had
subjected the Muslim employees “to a hostile work environment based on their religion, race and national origin, including making disparaging racial, ethnic and religious comments and by requiring them to choose between their religion and work.”
The Teamsters failed to fairly represent the workers “by historically failing to pursue grievances on their behalf relating to religious accommodation and by failing to intercede, advocate for or represent” black, Somali and Muslim employees, the letter addressed to Local No. 455 said.
“This ruling shows how egregious the Teamsters union has been toward these Muslim employees,” Mohamedbhai said. “The Teamsters readily accepted the expensive dues and, in turn, provided zero services to these Muslim employees.”
It is rare for a labor union to be found in violation of federal civil rights laws, Mohamedbhai said.
It is the second time the Teamsters union has run afoul of a federal regulatory agency for its response to the workers’ complaints against the company.
In October, the National Labor Relations Board found the union had engaged in unfair labor practices when union leaders threatened and retaliated against employees who objected to paying union dues after the Teamsters would not intervene in a dispute over prayer breaks.
The labor relations board ordered the Teamsters to cease and desist from threatening to prevent promotions and interrogating employees on their objections to union dues, the order said. The order also said Teamsters could not tell employees they would no longer receive representation for objecting to union dues.
In December 2015, Cargill fired more than 150 Muslim workers, most of them from Somalia, after they walked off the job because of a dispute over whether they should be allowed to take prayer breaks during their shifts.
The Teamsters did not respond to requests for comment from The Denver Post.
Cargill issued a statement saying the company was disappointed by and disagreed with the EEOC’s determination.
“Cargill has provided religious accommodation to Fort Morgan employees for many years and established designated reflection areas there in 2009,” the statement said. “Our policy has not changed, and based upon the facts, we are confident in our position. Cargill employees at Fort Morgan come from many countries, and everyone working at the plant has access to religious accommodation under our policy.”
The statement did not say whether the company would participate in mediation with the EEOC. Instead, company officials wrote, “We look forward to continuing a dialogue with the EEOC to better understand the basis for their initial determination.”
While Cargill insists it offered a place for its workers to pray, the EEOC’s ruling is the second time workers have prevailed in their complaints against the company.
A year ago, the Colorado labor department ruled the fired workers were entitled to unemployment compensation because the company had forced them to choose between their jobs and their religion. The payments to those workers were estimated to cost nearly $1 million.
During hearings held by the labor department, multiple employees said the prayer policy had changed on Dec. 15, 2015, without warning. Previously, they had been allowed prayer breaks, although workers often had to take turns so the meat processing line remained operational.
After the policy changed, Muslim leaders in Fort Morgan attempted to negotiate with Cargill, but the company stood by its policies. The workers chose to go home, and after three days they were fired, according to previous reports.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations issued a statement Wednesday praising the EEOC’s decision in favor of the Muslim workers.
Cargill and the Teamsters have 14 days after the receipt of their letters to accept the invitation to participate in mediation.