About 190 workers, most of them immigrants from Somalia, have been fired from a meat packing and distribution plant on Colorado’s Eastern Plains for walking off the job to protest a workplace prayer dispute.
Ten days ago more than 200 workers walked off their jobs at Cargill Meat Solutions in Fort Morgan.
Some workers later returned, but the majority stayed away as representatives of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) negotiated on their behalf.
On Tuesday Cargill, through its attorneys, fired the workers who were holding out, said Jaylani Hussein, a spokesman and executive director of CAIR.
Cargill is a Kansas-based company.
Some of the fired employees have been working at the plant for up to 10 years, Hussein said. Cargill had previously allowed Muslim employees to pray at the plant, even providing a prayer room, he said.
Depending on the season, the Muslim workers prayed at different times of the day, typically in about five-to-10 minute blocks, Hussein said. But recently a decision was made at the plant to change the practice.
“The workers were told: ‘If you want to pray, go home,’ ” Hussein said.
Many of the workers, some who support family with their earnings, banded together and decided to walk off the job in an attempt to sway plant managers to reinstate a prayer schedule.
Hussein and Jenifer Wicks, also of CAIR, were negotiating with Cargill. On Tuesday, they were told of the mass firing.
Hussein said company officials told him the mass dismissal was over a “no call, no show, walk out.”
“It’s disappointing,” Hussein said.
The workers have previously been using time carved out of a 15-minute break period, or time from their unpaid 30-minute lunch break.
Cargill has a policy stating that any workers who are terminated can not reapply for a position for 6 months.
CAIR continues to talk with Cargill, a teleconference is scheduled next week, and Hussein hopes that the 6-month freeze is waved and that the workers will be allowed back.
The workers continue to express their desire to be allowed a prayer break, Hussein said.
“They feel missing their prayer is worse than losing their job,” Hussein said. “It’s like losing a blessing from God.”
Cargill could not be reached for comment Wednesday night. Last week, Mike Martin, director of communications for Cargill, told the Greeley Tribune that employees of all faiths are allowed to use a reflection area, but that because employees work on an assembly line only one or two at a time can use the area, to avoid slowing production.
He told the Tribune company policies had not changed.
The workers earn $14-per-hour and up, and are represented by a union, Teamsters Local 445. About 2,000 people are employed at the plant.
“These are people who want to work,” Wicks said. “If they’re allowed to return to work, we will continue to negotiate.”