In a case that alleged mistreatment of Somali Muslim workers, a federal judge in Omaha ruled last week in favor of the JBS Swift meatpacking plant in Grand Island and against the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
The suit was filed by the EEOC on behalf of close to 80 JBS employees who were fired on Sept. 19, 2008. They alleged religious discrimination in the suit, which was filed in 2010.
U.S. District Judge Laurie Smith Camp found no evidence of a discriminatory motive.
The dispute began with requests by Somali Muslim employees for religious accommodation involving breaks for prayers.
Dissatisfied with the progress of those talks, a group of Somali Muslim employees refused to work on Sept. 16, 2008. Two days later, a group of Hispanic employees refused to work.
On Sept. 18, 2008, JBS management told employees that the next group of employees that refused to work would be terminated.
Later that night, JBS terminated about 80 Somali Muslim employees who refused to go back to work. That group included four of the individuals who brought the suit — Shamsho Abshir, Tufah Hassan, Abdiaziz Jama and Shukri Wais. Some of the employees were allowed to return to work when it was found they had not actually walked out the previous night.
The events that triggered the suit occurred during Ramadan in 2008.
On Sept. 12, 2008, JBS management and representatives of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local No. 22 met with representatives of JBS’ Somali Muslim employees. Those representatives said Muslim employees desired a mass break at sunset in order to perform their maghrib prayer.
Several accommodations were discussed, including changing meal times to coincide with prayer times.
Ultimately, JBS representative Dennis Sydow told Muslim representatives that JBS could not meet their requests because he believed the requests violated the meal-time requirements of the employees’ collective bargaining agreement.
After meeting further on Sept. 15, 2008, JBS executives told the Muslim employees that they could not meet their requests, citing productivity and safety concerns in allowing a large number of employees to leave the line at the same time. They also cited the requirements of the collective bargaining agreement.
That day, a large group of Somali Muslim employees gathered outside the JBS facility to protest the company’s refusal to accommodate their prayer requests. They refused to report for work that day and Sept. 16.
On the afternoon of Sept. 16, JBS management, union officials and Somali Muslim representatives met to discuss prayer accommodations. An agreement was reached that for the remainder of Ramadan, the B-shift meal break would be a mass break at 7:45 p.m. The shift would be shortened by 15 minutes to seven and three-quarter hours. As part of the agreement, the employees who failed to report for work on Sept. 15 and 16 would have a letter placed in their files.
JBS sent a notice to union representatives stating that further work stoppages could result in termination. The lawsuit’s claimants denied they ever received notice from union officials.
On Sept. 17, a large group of employees, many of them Hispanic, walked off the job and refused to return to the production floor. B-shift operations were canceled that night due to a lack of employees.
The next day, several hundred Hispanic workers on the A shift walked off the job or refused to begin work to protest the company’s decision to provide religious accommodation to the Somalia Muslim employees. In order to get the plant operating and avoid a shutdown, JBS management decided not to implement the agreement for the 7:45 p.m. mass break and returned the meal break to its original time.
The company then told employees, through their union leadership, that the next group of employees that refused to work would be terminated.
That night, a group of Somali Muslim employees began to engage in a loud demonstration in the cafeteria to protest JBS’ decision to rescind the break-time agreement. Police were called when approximately 70 to 80 Somali Muslim employees remained in the cafeteria at the end of the meal break.
The employees who did not return to work that night were fired.
They may have lost the lawsuit but they got a lot of sharia accommodations: