Introduction to Religious Accommodations at Work
In December 2015, approximately 150 Somali employees of a Cargill Meat Solutions (a meat processor) processing plant in Colorado were fired for allegedly “abandoning” their jobs. The workers were all Muslims whose faith required them to engage in prayer at specific times during the day. The dispute began after workers believed that their prayer breaks (which had historically been honored by supervisors) would be seriously curtailed. Workers walked off of the job in protest, demanding that Cargill management accommodate the tenants’ religious practices before they would return to work. After the workers missed several shifts, Cargill terminated the workers’ employment in accordance with the company’s policy.
In the wake of this incident, several discrimination claims were filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on behalf of the workers. (Approximately one dozen of the terminated workers were rehired by Cargill.). While the outcomes of these claims are yet to be determined, the incident has raised questions about how far an employer must go to accommodate the religious practices of its employees.
Cargill’s Accommodations for its Employees
In its defense, Cargill pointed to the accommodations it made to its Muslim workers. The Cargill plant had created two areas for prayer out of cubicles and approved the “vast majority” of the workers’ requests for prayer breaks. During any given shifts, supervisors and management would attempt to accommodate any requests of employees to leave the manufacturing floor in order to pray, but admitted that the approval of such requests would depend on the number of workers present for a particular shift and how many of those workers were requesting a prayer break at any given time. If it were to allow too many employees to take a break for prayer at the same time, its production lines would need to be shut down (which would mean the company might not be able to produce as much product as it may have desired to produce or would have been capable of producing absent the prayer breaks). For additional information see the article from the EEOC on religious accommodations at work.
Were Cargill’s Accommodations Enough?
When a worker’s job duties interfere with a worker’s sincerely held religious beliefs, an employer must make “reasonable accommodations” that would permit the worker to exercise his or her religious beliefs unless such accommodations would be more than a minimal burden on the employer’s operations. What constitutes “reasonable accommodations” that do not cause more than a minimal burden will vary from case to case but may include the employer allowing employees to switch job shifts or assignments easily or taking breaks when necessary.
When it comes to reasonable accommodations, the burden falls on the employer to demonstrate that the accommodations it offered to the employee were “reasonable” and/or that any other accommodations would impose too great of a burden on the business’s operations. This can be a difficult and challenging burden to meet. Take the situation at Cargill as an example: Suppose the workers alleged religious discrimination in that Cargill failed to make reasonable accommodations by allowing Muslim workers to take breaks for prayer when their religion dictated. The burden would then fall upon Cargill to demonstrate: (1) the staggered prayer break policy it had in place was a reasonable accommodation; and (2) other accommodations requested by the employees themselves would have imposed too great of a burden on the employer. For example, if the employees requested to be able to observe their times of prayer at set times during the day, Cargill may be able to avoid having to make such an accommodation if it can show that allowing all Muslim employees on a given shift to observe the same prayer times would cause the production line to be shut down, costing the employer a substantial amount of money.