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

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."

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