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Jan 6, 2016

By Eric B. Meyer

Yesterday, I had one of those moments. You know the ones.

For me, it was when a client asked me when I was going to blog about the Muslim workers in Colorado who were denied prayer breaks and, then, allegedly fired for protesting.

So, I did what any self respecting employment-lawyer-blogger would do: I Googled “Muslim Prayer Employee Protest Colorado Fired,” and I promised a client-inspired Wednesday post.

190 protesting muslim employees get fired

The Denver Post reports that about 190 workers were fired from a Fort Morgan meat packing and distribution plant 10 days after walking off the job to protest a workplace prayer dispute. Here’s where it gets interesting:

Some of the fired employees have been working at the plant for up to 10 years, [Spokesperson Jaylani] Hussein said. Cargill had previously allowed Muslim employees to pray at the plant, even providing a prayer room, he said.

Depending on the season, the Muslim workers prayed at different times of the day, typically in about five-to-10 minute blocks, Hussein said. But recently a decision was made at the plant to change the practice.

“The workers were told: ‘If you want to pray, go home,’ ” Hussein said. …

Hussein said company officials told him the mass dismissal was over a “no call, no show, walk out.”

In a subsequent report, the employer denied that it prevented employees from praying at work.

It also denied changing its religious accommodation policy. Rather, the company said that it made reasonable efforts to accommodate employees, but couldn’t guarantee daily accommodations. And, accommodations depended on changing factors in the plant.

Religious accommodation basics

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 requires employers to accommodate an employee’s sincerely-held religious beliefs or practices, unless doing so would create an undue hardship. One example of a religious accommodation would be providing a Muslim employee with a break schedule that allows for daily prayer. But…

That undue hardship bar is very low. According to the EEOC,

An accommodation may cause undue hardship if it is costly, compromises workplace safety, decreases workplace efficiency, infringes on the rights of other employees, or requires other employees to do more than their share of potentially hazardous or burdensome work.”

So, how about accommodating the sincerely-held religious beliefs of, oh, say, 190 employees?

Let’s put aside the “no call, no show, walk out.” Instead, we’ll focus on the accommodation issue.

I can imagine how productivity on a production line in a plant setting would suffer big-time if everyone leaves the line to pray at once. Indeed, the company cited difficulties in accommodating larger prayer sessions:

It backs up the flow of all the production. We’re a federally inspected, USDA inspected plant. We have to ensure food safety. We have to ensure the products we produce meet consumer expectations.”

It’s not so easy to accommodate a large group

That checks a bunch of the undue hardship boxes.

Were we to rewind the clock, what could have solved the problem? Maybe staggered prayer breaks so as not to unduly interfere with productivity. Otherwise, given the scale, I’m struggling to come up with a reasonable accommodation.

But, each situation stands on its own. And, you never know what can work until you talk it out.

So, while generally a starting point, let’s hope that the two sides will engage in an interactive dialogue to discern possible religious accommodations, and mend the fences for the company and its 190 former employees.

This was originally published on Eric B. Meyer’s blog, The Employer Handbook.

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