Wall Street Journal: Religious-bias filings up

Mass firings at meatpacking plants in Colorado and Nebraska last month highlight growing conflicts over how to accommodate religion in the workplace.

The plants, owned by the U.S. unit of Brazil’s JBS SA, collectively fired about 200 Muslim Somali workers who walked off the job over prayer disputes.

JBS Swift & Co. workers protest a compromise reached to accommodate prayer for about 500 Muslim and mostly Somalian workers of a meat packing plant workers on Sept. 17.

The workers had asked management to adjust their evening break times so they could pray at sunset. Managers at both plants initially agreed but then reversed their decisions after protests by non-Muslim workers.

The tension in the JBS plants comes amid a surge in workplace disputes over religion. Claims of religious discrimination filed with federal, state and local agencies have doubled over the past 15 years and rose 15% during 2007 to 4,515, a record.

That’s fewer than 5% of workplace-discrimination claims, but the number is growing faster than claims based on race or gender, says Reed Russell, a counsel for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The increase reflects greater religious diversity and openness about faith in the workplace, Mr. Russell says.

A Tyson Foods Inc. chicken-processing plant in Tennessee this year agreed to let its work force claim holiday pay for Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, instead of Labor Day. Non-Muslims protested that the policy was un-American. Tyson managers reinstated Labor Day and switched a paid birthday to a personal day that could be used for religious observances.

The EEOC last month intervened on the side of Muslim workers at Minnesota chicken processor Gold’n Plump Poultry Inc. The processor has now tentatively agreed to give workers two breaks per shift instead of one, making it easier for them to pray at appropriate times.

Employers are supposed to try to accommodate workers’ religious requests that don’t pose an “undue hardship” on operations. But employers and lawyers say getting that balance right is tricky.

In August, a federal judge in Nevada ruled that the Las Vegas police department must allow an orthodox Jewish officer to wear a beard, but not a yarmulke. The judge noted that the city permits employees to wear beards for medical reasons, but it prohibits all officers from wearing headgear.

The EEOC in July issued new guidelines that attempted to clarify matters by citing legal rulings. These distinctions, too, are tricky. For example, the guidelines cite cases involving tattoos and piercing. In one, a restaurant was prohibited from ordering an employee to cover religious tattoos; in the other, a retailer was allowed to bar facial piercing.

Doug Schult, JBS’s head of employee and labor relations, says the new guidelines haven’t helped. Mr. Schult says he has been wrestling with the prayer issue since last year. “We spent months trying to figure it out,” he says. “It’s frustrating for a lot of people that we haven’t been able to solve this.”

The tensions at the JBS plant in Grand Island, Neb., started in 2006, after government raids removed around 400 undocumented Latino workers. In their place, the plant hired hundreds of Somali refugees who had been resettled in places like Minnesota and Ohio. Most were Muslim, and few spoke English.

The new workers soon clashed with management over praying at sunset, which falls in the middle of the plant’s second shift. Up to a quarter of the 1,200 workers on that shift were Muslim, Mr. Schult estimates.

When some workers slipped off their lines to pray in locker rooms or bathrooms, supervisors ordered them back to work or cited them for taking “illegal breaks,” according to Mr. Schult and a union representative. A few were fired.

The Somali workers said that they should be allowed to pray on their breaks and would be gone for only a few minutes. Supervisors responded that the only permitted unscheduled breaks were for use of the bathroom and that the plant couldn’t have hundreds of workers leaving the lines at the same time. [religion]

“It takes less than five minutes,” says Graen Isse, a Somali worker who was fired following a similar dispute at a JBS plant in Greeley, Colo. He says he and other workers offered to let JBS deduct pay for time spent praying.

Efforts to forge a compromise among JBS managers, the Somali workers and representatives of the United Food & Commercial Workers local made little progress. Letting groups of Muslim employees take short prayer breaks would disrupt the fast-moving assembly lines, where workers wield sharp knives to whittle pieces off slabs of beef. Stopping the lines for an extra 15-minute break was too costly, Mr. Schult says.

Moving a scheduled break was tricky, too. The times were specified in a labor contract, in part to make sure nobody worked too long without a break. And since the sun sets at different times during the year, breaks would always be “chasing the sun,” Mr. Schult says.

Talks broke down in October 2007. Some of the fired workers filed discrimination claims with the EEOC, says Rima Kapitan, a lawyer with the Council on American-Islamic Relations representing the workers. Ms. Kapitan says the EEOC began investigating one of those claims in the past month. The EEOC and Mr. Schult decline to comment.

The issue flared up again last month, during Ramadan. A Somali woman claimed a supervisor kicked her while she was praying. The supervisor said he didn’t see her and only kicked the cardboard she was sitting on, says Dan Hoppes, the president of UFCW Local 22, which investigated the charge.

In protest, as many as 400 Somalis walked off the job for two days, demonstrating at Grand Island City Hall and asking for time to pray. After a day of negotiations, JBS managers agreed to move to 7:45 p.m. a break that had been scheduled around 8:15 p.m., says Abdi Mohamed, a Somali worker who participated in the discussions and was later fired. Mr. Mohamed, 28 years old, came to the U.S. in September 2007 and spoke through an interpreter.

The next day, non-Muslim workers, who are largely Latinos, staged a counterprotest and walked out themselves. Some resented what they saw as shirking by Somalis. “They used to go to the bathroom but actually they’re praying and the rest of us have to do their work,” says José Amaya, an immigrant from El Salvador who has been working at the factory more than four years.

Donato Medina, a 13-year JBS veteran, says he gets along well with Somali workers but walked out because he thought their complaints had gotten a special hearing. “I thought, this is an opportunity to tell the company we’re not happy,” he says.

JBS managers restored the original break time. That evening, Somali workers protested in the cafeteria, then walked off the job again, say workers and managers. When they returned the next morning, JBS managers told around 80 of them they were fired. About 100 other workers were fired at the Greeley plant around the same time.

Now, Mr. Mohamed says he’s looking for a job at other meatpacking plants that he thinks are more flexible about prayer issues. Managers in Grand Island are holding “diversity” meetings to try to resolve some of the tensions.

Mr. Hoppes, the union president, says he’s looking at other religious-discrimination cases for clues on how to handle the problem, though he hasn’t found anything helpful yet. A few years ago, Local 22 lobbied to allow a Seventh Day Adventist at another meatpacking plant to take Saturdays off, as demanded by his religion. The union lost, he says.

Copyright © 2008 Dow Jones & Company, Inc