EEOC Sues on Behalf of Nearly 200 Somali Muslims Who Claim Religious Harassment, Termination From Meatpacking Plants

Discrimination and harassment complaints from nearly 200 Somali Muslims against a meat processing corporation have caught the attention of federal employment attorneys who blasted the company in joint lawsuits from two states.

The employees -- 85 from Nebraska, 89 from Colorado -- allege religious and ethnic intolerance so severe that the workers were taunted with slurs and had meat and bones hurled at them before dozens were fired from plants in both states during Ramadan 2008.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) told the number of affected employees could eventually swell by hundreds as it continues the investigation.

The employees, mostly political refugees, had requested to management at both JBS Swift & Co. plants that they be allowed to alter their break times to observe Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting, and use their bathroom and meal breaks to pray, according to the EEOC.

What they were met with, the dual lawsuits allege, were taunts and a refusal to comply with their requests even though such accommodations had already been included in the workers' collective bargaining agreements.

"Managers, supervisors and other employees regularly threw blood, meat and bones at the Somali and Muslim employees," the Colorado suit alleges, going on to describe graffiti with the words "F**k Somalians,," "F**k Muslims" and "F**k Mohammed."

JBS Swift could not be reached for comment after multiple attempts.

The harassment came to a head, both EEOC districts claim, during Ramadan 2008 when dozens of employees were terminated. JBS Swift, which is a subsidiary of a Brazilian multinational, claims they all walked off the job, according to the lawsuits, filed late Monday in U.S. District Courts in Colorado and Nebraska.

Barbara Seely, the EEOC's St. Louis regional attorney, who is handling the Nebraska complaint, declined to offer specifics on the terminations, only saying that they did leave the premises of the Grand Island plant.

But for the Greeley, Colo., plant, the JBS Swift headquarters, the EEOC offered a timeline of events that, they say, left many of the refugees without jobs.

Lawsuit: Water Fountains Shut Off, Muslim Employees Fired

JBS Swift allowed the Muslim employees to alter their meal breaks for two days in order to accommodate the month-long Ramadan, according to the Colorado court documents. But on the third day, a Friday, the meal break was reverted back to its original schedule.

When the Muslims tried to leave for their break, "Swift stationed management employees at all of the exists and refused to allow the Muslim employees to leave," the lawsuit claims.

The water fountains, the EEOC alleges, were also shut off and marked with the same red tags typically reserved for rotten or spoiled meat, meaning employees who had been fasting all day could not get a drink of water.

When the meal break came, "Swift management told the Muslim employees to go outside the facility," the document reads. "When the Muslim employees attempted to reenter the facility at the conclusion of the break, Swift told them they could not return to work."

That following Monday, the lawsuit alleges, Swift informed the union that the employees who left the plant had engaged in "unauthorized work stoppage" and were indefinitely suspended.

Mary O'Neill, the EEOC's regional attorney in Phoenix, which oversees Colorado complaints, said the employees, many of whom had not been notified by the union -- possibly because of a language barrier -- tried over several days to return to work that week only to find they'd been fired.

"Management was just mad at them, were just frustrated with it," she said.

Union officials could not be reached for comment.

Federal law requires employers to make special accommodations for devout employees, as long as it does not create an undue hardship on the company.

"What they're asking for are slight modifications that were allowed during the collective bargaining agreement," O'Neill said of the Somali employees, "that weren't going to hurt the other employees or the employer."

Seely agreed, citing similar circumstances in Nebraska.

"The collective bargaining agreement allowed the dinner break to be scheduled during a window of time." she said. "Moving the dinner break back as requested by the Somalis would have still been in that window."

Most of the Somalian employees, Seely and O'Neill said, worked cutting meat in an assembly line-type set up. O'Neill said the Colorado workers were paid roughly $12 an hour on average.

Such stability is often foreign to the Somalians, who fled an ongoing Civil War that has plagued their impoverished country since 1991.

EEOC Lawyer 'Struck by How Intolerant We Are'

Investigating and litigating the cases is a logistical labyrinth even with the EEOC's pledge to find as many aggrieved employees as it could.

Although fewer Somali Muslim employees still work for JBS Swift, many have moved to Minneapolis, Seely and O'Neill said, where a large Somalian community has proved to be more welcoming.

Others have found employment elsewhere. Some remain in Grand Island and Greeley.

Few of the employees, including those already named in the lawsuits, speak English, meaning the lawyers have had to use translators and community volunteers to track down and interview the workers. And with hundreds of potential victims still to uncover, their neatly organized Excel spreadsheets are likely to grow.

"What I'm struck by is how intolerant we are of other people's religion," O'Neill said of her time investigating this case and others of religious workplace discrimination.

O'Neill conceded that the culture clash between the Somalians and JBS Swift management undoubtedly created a tense working environment. But she said misunderstandings and illegal discrimination are distinct and separate.

She described the workers as willing to find comprises so they could work in their daily prayers.

"Some of them were just going to the bathroom. Some of them were finding little spots in hallways and stairwells," she said. "They just needed a place to pray."

In Nebraska, Seely said, "their prayer rugs were yanked out from under them. They were told they couldn't pray.

"There were comments about them being lazy; 'Go back to work, go back to your country,'" she said.

Seely said the EEOC was open to discussing a settlement for the workers.

"But if that does not happen and we can't work out any type of settlement and the company doesn't want to settle," she said, "then we will be prepared to take it to trial."