Prayer dispute ends, for now
By Oskar Garcia
By Oskar Garcia
OMAHA, Neb. — Dozens of Somali meatpacking workers who quit their jobs because they were not given enough time off for Muslim prayers have returned to work, but the issue could resurface as sundown inches later through the summer, a union official said yesterday
About 70 of 120 Somali workers are back on the job at the Swift & Co. meatpacking plant after abruptly quitting last week. The workers complained that existing break-time rules did not let them leave lines to pray at sundown.
Similar requests for workplace accommodations of Muslim religious obligations have become common nationwide, Muslim advocates said.
"I don't know how it's going to work, and I feel bad about it," said Dan Hoppes, president of Local 22 of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union.
Later summertime sunsets could run past allotted breaks that keep workers from long stretches on production lines.
"We do those things to prevent injuries and to give them a little rest," Hoppes said.
The workers agreed to come back after company and union officials met with workers and the head of a Somali community group to discuss the conflicts between Muslim prayer and workplace rules. The company agreed to accommodate the workers as much as it could within the contract, company and union officials said.
"We live in a country where religious beliefs are important to us, and I don't care what religion it is and we should try to do our best to support those things," Hoppes said. "But we've got a contract with Swift."
Company officials worry that sunset prayers could take too many workers off production lines, forcing them to be shut down, Hoppes said.
"It's difficult to speculate on what a worker may or may not do," said Sean McHugh, spokes-man for Swift, which is based in Greeley, Colo. "All I can say is that the workers understand the work-site rules that we have in place, and the 70 who have come back have accepted or are comfortable with these rules."
It was the largest single-day employee loss at the plant since December, when 261 workers were arrested as part of a raid of Swift plants in six states by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials.
Mohamed Rage, chairman of the Omaha Somali-American Community Organization, said some of the Somalis who left went to Kansas and Denver, while others remained in Nebraska and were planning to go back to work at Swift.
"They have to earn their living; at the same time they have to fulfill their faith," Rage said. "There will always be a friction, but we have to have the tool to fix any problem that arises at the future."
A spokeswoman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Rabiah Ahmed, said: "There is some flexibility when it comes to prayer if it's conflicting with something as serious as your job and your work environment."
"But (prayer) doesn't take very long — really, it only takes five minutes," she said.
The council, which describes itself as a civil rights and advocacy group, has been able to mediate between companies and workers on the issue in most cases.
Some Muslim cashiers at Target stores in Minnesota were shifted to other positions in March because they objected to handling pork products.
An ongoing dispute also exists among cab drivers who serve Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport — many of whom are Muslim — who refuse to take passengers who are carrying alcohol.
In 2005, 30 workers walked off the job at a Dell Inc. plant in Nashville, Tenn., after alleging the company refused to let them pray at sunset.
A federal lawsuit brought by nine Somalis against Gold'n Plump Poultry Inc. in October made similar allegations.