January 17, 2016; NPR, “The Salt”

The firing of 150 Muslim workers refusing to show up to work as a statement to protect their prayer-rights has set off a religious and economic debate. What has become a storm of misunderstanding and frustration began inside the walls of a beef processing plant in a small town in Colorado. In just under a month’s time, the workers were fired, the company’s rehiring policies changed, and there is now a possibility of them returning to work. The real question is, will anything change?

Cargill Meat Solutions, located in the small town of Ft. Morgan, has notably opened its doors to Somali refugees facing horrific wartime turmoil in their homelands. The town got the attention of the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, in 2014 due to the high influx of refugees moving to the community for employment, standing in contrast to the current policy to “overtly discourage” refugees from moving from their initial urban placements. From 1999 to 2013, Ft. Morgan’s population grew by nearly 10 percent, with over 1,000 Somali refugees resettling to the town of just over 11,000 people.

Of the 155,000 Cargill employees working across the globe in 68 countries, 2,000 work at the Ft. Morgan plant. Prior to the recent firing, approximately 30 percent, or 600, were Somali. Using the last resettlement numbers, this would represent a minimum of 60 percent of the local refugee population. Both the UNHCR report and stories out of the Denver Post help paint a picture of a post-9/11 small U.S. community and a major beef processing employer changing their environments and day-to-day lives to help create an accepting, sensitive and collaborative community with their new neighbors.

On December 18th, this picture was torn with the buildup taking place at the Cargill plant. For the vast majority of the refugees, prayer is required five times a day. This is considered one of the Five Pillars of Islam, a central element of Islamic practice and worship tied to their Muslim faith. Due to this frequency, at least one prayer request, lasting from five to ten minutes, would fall within work hours. In Ft. Morgan, Cargill made clear steps to accommodate: The plant found space to provide reflection rooms for prayer beginning in 2009 and incorporated flexibility in their practice for allowing breaks on the job.

If the story ended here, the Cargill model could have continued as a potential national success in creating a culturally sensitive new life in a rural area for families from war-torn countries. However, tensions brewing behind the scenes led to the building of an unpassable wall on both sides. Ultimately, the need for every Somali worker to have access to prayer-time ran counter to assuring the plant operations were not put in jeopardy.

Several reports, dating both before and after the December 18th incident, share that workers would arrive back at their stations late after prayer, or that more than two or three workers would request leave from their shift at the same time. This led Cargill supervisors to issue communications that showed little tolerance. On the receiving side of these orders, articles reflect Somali workers’ feeling that prayer was historically accepted at Cargill, and then all at once was not. The Council on American-Islamic Relations, which represents some of the fired workers, said supervisors were hostile.

On December 18th, a group of second-shift workers approached their supervisor, asking permission to leave together for prayer. Three of eleven were permitted to leave their stations at the same time. Ten of the 11 resigned that day, but over the following days, the dispute spread to other employees, and in protest, nearly 160 Somali workers didn’t show up for work and 17 more clocked in to simply walk out. On the third day of absence, the workers were notified of termination of employment under Cargill’s attendance policy, stating that the company will fire any employee who fails to show up for work following three consecutive days without notice.

The dynamics of this case lead us to ask our readers who is right. In 2015, Cargill was reported to be the largest privately held corporation in the United States in terms of revenue. If it were a public company, it would rank number 12 on the Fortune 500, behind McKesson and ahead of AT&T. In our American society, is it possible that frustration had been building with plant supervisors operating in a business culture in which the demand for safety and competition for dollars depend on punctuality and attendance? Supervisors and administrators would have likely felt that they had provided allowances against the status quo, yet the employees did not meet them with full adherence or satisfaction. Somali employees who returned late to their station and groups requesting leave together would be counter to the plant’s long-time culture to strive for a balance of quality and quick operations. A representative of the plant explains that in a large slaughterhouse, just one person not reporting back or going missing for 10 minutes can slow down an entire shift. After multiple instances, this would have likely led to a cracking down on staff with no tolerance for anything more than the designated 10-15 minute break allotted. It would also be likely that supervisors would be frustrated if they felt any pushback or lack of appreciation when groups of more than two to three employees requested leave at one time. This would have magnified growing tensions within the Muslim population with layers of challenges communicating how incredibly important it is to have their time in prayer.

Should Cargill assure that all employees have the ability to step away from the line when requested for religious needs? To assure quality and safety, this would have to be done with a significant employee backup system at equally significant cost to the company’s bottom line. According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, employers cannot deny a “reasonable” religious accommodation request as long as it does not pose an undue hardship on the company. How do organizations draw a line for what constitutes an undue hardship and who determines what is a reasonable accommodation?

The Swift meatpacking plant in Colorado is more familiar with these waters. The plant won a similar case in Nebraska in 2013, but more recently, a federal judge ruled that an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) lawsuit against them could go forward despite Swift’s argument that accommodating simultaneous prayer by a large percentage of their employees posed an undue burden on the operation of the business.

Since the firing, Cargill has made an effort to compromise by changing their rehiring policy this month to allow the fired employees to reapply after thirty days of termination, as opposed to the historical policy of six months. A representative of Cargill is confident that upcoming negotiations will lead to resolution; however, it is clear from reports that neither side seems to have communicated a new understanding or willingness to budge from their current stance. The falling-out resulted in refugees who “want to return to work and support their families” but chose to walk away from their jobs in their last desperate attempt to communicate the importance of their daily prayer. On the other end, a beef manufacturer highly dependent on its labor force let go of eight percent of its labor pool in one day, significantly reducing its ability to produce—which is the heart of its business.

There is no question that a significant breakdown has taken place in Ft. Morgan. Both sides tell media outlets about the other’s misunderstanding and unwillingness to cooperate. Cargill appears to be staying grounded in the fact that they have exhausted all ideas and will do everything they can—up and until the point they damage the success of the very company able to provide such employment. The refugee workers, who have experienced a world the majority of us cannot imagine, have entered a new culture very different from their past, and justifiably are confused on how asking for just five minutes for something so sacred, can seem so paramount.—Michelle Lemming