A Crisis Of Faith For Muslims In The Workforce

A Crisis Of Faith For Muslims In The Workforce

Muslim prayer practices have intensified the challenge that Minnesota production-line businesses face in religious accommodation.

Off a Chanhassen thoroughfare sits IWCO Direct, a one-stop direct mail shop run with hive-like efficiency by workers from around the world. In a typical 12-hour shift, Somalis, Hmong, Nepalese, Latinos, Russians, Chinese and a slew of other ethnic groups share printing, mailing and envelope production duties. To accommodate its diverse staff, IWCO has multiple “language coaches” on-site, and each of its buildings contains a spiritual center where employees can take a few moments for reflection. For Muslims—most of whom at the plant are Somali—their faith requires five daily prayers at specific times, and they routinely use these clean, quiet spaces.

Yet for an assembly-line outfit such as IWCO, the logistics of prayer breaks can be challenging. Islamic worship is based on the lunar calendar, and the window into which the faithful must fit their five daily prayers shrinks and expands with the seasons.

In December 2013, the company took issue with employees leaving their posts to pray without notifying supervisors. IWCO offers three paid breaks per 12-hour shift, but at the time some Muslim workers needed five breaks to fulfill salah, the Islamic prayer ritual.

When a Somali employee quit over the difficulties of scheduling prayers in his workday, IWCO approached the Minnesota Chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-MN) to help resolve the matter. The advocacy group visited the campus and explained Somali culture and its practice of Islam. As a result, the marketing services firm added two unpaid breaks per shift, posted a prayer calendar for supervisors and rehired the worker who had quit.

A growing tension

Not every company has adapted as seamlessly to the needs of the growing Muslim workforce. The Pew Research Center estimates there were roughly 3.3 million Muslims living in the U.S. in 2015, and it predicts that number will double by 2050, with more than half of the growth coming from an increase in Muslim immigrants.

As Islamic workers enter the job market, their practices don’t always mesh with company policy. Abercrombie & Fitch came under fire eight years ago for telling a teenage employee that her hijab (head scarf) violated its “look policy.” In 2015, the Supreme Court voted 8-1 in favor of the employee. Also last year, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued UPS for demanding a Muslim applicant shave the beard he was wearing as part of his religious observance. (The lawsuit had not been settled at press time.)

Muslim Prayer 101

Muslims bow five times a day at times according to the lunar calendar. Each prayer takes 5 to 10 minutes. Some employers, including IWCO Direct in Chanhassen, post schedules in order to keep track of the prayer needs of Muslim workers.

June 1, 2016 Muslim prayer schedule for Minneapolis source: islamicfinder.org
Fajr (Dawn): 3:37 a.m.
Dhuhr (Noon): 1:12 p.m.
Asr (Afternoon): 5:19 p.m.
Maghrib (After sunset): 8:54 p.m.
Isha (Night): 10:46 p.m.

January 1, 2017 Muslim prayer schedule for Minneapolis
Fajr: 6:23 a.m.
Dhuhr: 12:17 p.m.
Asr 2:25 p.m.
Maghrib: 4:43 p.m.
Isha : 6:12 p.m.

Closer to home, Minnesota businesses such as Cargill, Doherty Staffing Solutions, GNP Co. (formerly Gold’n Plump) and AmesburyTruth have made headlines for allegedly refusing Muslim prayer break requests.

Doherty and AmesburyTruth were most recently in the news in April, accused of terminating 21 employees after they asked for religious accommodations that would allow them to pray while at work. Two months earlier, Wisconsin snowblower and lawn mower manufacturer Ariens Co. fired seven Muslim employees for leaving the production line to worship at unscheduled times. At a news conference, CEO Dan Ariens estimated that adding breaks for Islamic worship would cost the company $1 million a year. “It gets out of control,” he said of such accommodations.

Ariens’ concerns underline the tension that can arise between a company trying to protect its bottom line and employees seeking religious rights on the job. The issue is equally troubling for worker advocates such as CAIR-MN director Jaylani Hussein. “We’ve seen a lot of positive action made by employers for Muslim employees,” he says. “Yet we still run into workplace discrimination being one of our highest concerns.”

Civil rights support is one of CAIR-MN’s core functions, and each year area Muslims bring between 150 and 200 discrimination cases to the organization, with roughly 43 percent of the alleged incidents occurring in the workplace. (CAIR has represented employees of all the companies mentioned.) Nationally, religious discrimination charges filed with the EEOC have more than doubled since 1997, and a report from Harvard University’s Pluralism Project says much of that growth is due to a backlash against U.S. Muslims in the aftermath of 9/11.

At a 2015 labor law conference, EEOC lawyer David Lopez said religious accommodation was the commission’s most significant litigation trend, and today, Minnesota finds itself in the middle of the debate—one in which profits and efficiency clash with ancient tradition.

A growing presence

The U.S. Census doesn’t track religious affiliation, but the influx of immigrants from predominantly Islamic nations in East Africa shows how the faith has gained a foothold in Minnesota.

Since the early 1990s, refugees fleeing Somalia’s civil war have arrived en masse, drawn by jobs, welfare subsidies, and the resettlement efforts of Lutheran Social Services and other organizations. Census data from 2000 showed 10,000 Somali immigrants and their children living in the state. According to the Minnesota State Demographic Center, that number jumped to an estimated 52,000 in 2013, the largest concentration of Somalis in the country. Bolstering the state’s Muslim population are newcomers from Ethiopia, Eritrea and Djibouti.

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The majority of East Africans in Minnesota have settled in the seven-county metro area, but there are numerous outstate enclaves, including Moorhead, Pelican Rapids, St. Cloud, Willmar, and Rochester. As of 2013, an estimated 40,000 Somalis lived in the Twin Cities, with another 5,000 in St. Cloud, 5,000 more in Olmsted County, and the remainder spread out in multiple communities.

Muse Mohamed, an electrician at IWCO Direct since 2008, standing in the company’s prayer cubicle.

Some are entrepreneurs. A 2015 study by Concordia University economics professor Bruce Corrie estimates that there are between 2,000 and 3,200 African-owned businesses in the state—from taxi services to restaurants to bodega-style markets. Others, reports Corrie, “are playing a critical role in Minnesota . . . in certain sectors such as manufacturing, transportation, and health care, and will continue to do so in the future as Minnesota copes with labor shortages.”

Hussein says East Africans are also finding work in office cleaning, building security, retail, and city transit, but notes that light and heavy manufacturers remain the largest employers of Somalis and other African immigrants in the state: “Assembly-line jobs that require lower English proficiency are attractive to immigrants.”

But finding employment data for East African Muslims is difficult because most employer data does not identify religion or nation of origin; however, Cawo Abdi, a University of Minnesota sociology professor and author of a book on the Somali diaspora, says that Somalis everywhere in the world are predominantly Muslim. In the end, companies rely on anecdotal evidence and guesstimates to determine their demographic makeup. IWCO, for example, has 144 self-identified black employees.

“Many from that group are from Somalia,” says IWCO HR vice-president Bev Lohs. “Though not all of our Somali employees practice Islam at work.” Cargill spokesman Mike Martin says the Wayzata-based agribusiness giant employs “significant populations” of East Africans at its beef processing plants in Fort Morgan, Colo.; Dodge City, Kan.; and Schuyler, Neb.

“Locally, you see a lot of East Africans at production facilities for Medtronic and General Mills,” says Hussein. “In St. Cloud and southern Minnesota, many find work at meat packing and processing plants.”

Integrating Islam into the factory

For devout Muslims, adapting to the American workplace can be a challenge. “It starts with the language barrier,” says Hussein. “And then you have a religious practice that’s not always well understood by a company or its workers.” Hussein won’t name names, but he says he’s worked on cases where the loose clothing worn by many Muslim women posed a safety issue in certain factory settings. CAIR-MN helped employers find solutions for containing the garb with aprons and lab coats.

Then there’s the matter of on-the-job prayer breaks. Islamic worship occurs at sunrise, midday, afternoon, sunset and after nightfall. Prior to praying, Muslims sometimes wash their face, hands and feet in an ablutionary process known as wudhu. Next, the participant finds a clean, quiet area, kneels, faces Mecca and performs a series of movements and invocations. In all, this process takes five to 15 minutes.

Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act protects those who pray at work by prohibiting discrimination based on religion and requires employers to “reasonably accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs or practices” unless doing so would cause “undue hardship” for the business. The Minnesota Human Rights Act offers workers similar religious protection.

For many companies, accommodating worship is a non-issue. General Mills’ manufacturing facility in Chanhassen, for example, has a dedicated meditation/prayer room that employees can use on their breaks. At Target stores, Muslim cashiers pray during allotted times, and though stores don’t have designated areas for worship, Target spokesperson Kristy Welker says, “Spaces are made available as needed, in break rooms and other areas.”

The City of St. Paul uses a flex break system at its downtown office departments. “While I don’t like this analogy, prayer breaks are not much different than smoke breaks,” says the city’s HR director, Angela Nalezny. “We allow employees who smoke to use their break allotment for several smaller breaks throughout the day, so prayer breaks are much the same.”

Factory-floor disruption

Prayer breaks most often become a point of contention with employers who maintain production during varying periods—think factories and packing plants, says Steve Befort, an employment law professor at the University of Minnesota. “The hardest part for these types of businesses is that prayers aren’t always at the same time. That makes it difficult to schedule breaks.”

An ongoing EEOC lawsuit against multibillion-dollar meat processor JBS USA, which has a pork facility in Worthington, accuses the company of systematic discrimination against Muslim employees. Many of the issues in the case stem from the company’s 2008 firing of a group of employees who requested unscheduled prayer breaks at a beef plant in Greeley, Colo. In court documents, JBS estimated that altering its break structure would cost it more than $18,000 per plant per day.

In another high-profile case, nearly 200 employees walked off the job at Cargill’s Fort Morgan beef plant late last year, claiming the company no longer allowed them to pray on the job. When the majority of those employees failed to show up for work for three days straight in December, they were fired. Cargill says it never changed its prayer break policy, which it instituted more than a decade ago, and that it still accommodates daily prayer when possible.

The issue, it contends, boils down to numbers. “Our ability to grant an individual religious accommodation request is based upon our ability to maintain production and an adequate level of staffing in each work area to prevent undue disruptions to our operations,” company spokesperson Martin says. “Our meat processing plants are large-scale operations. . . . If there is workflow disruption in one area of the plant, there is a ripple effect that requires extra work and added costs. There are times when staffing in various parts of our plants will not allow us to grant time off the line exactly when an individual would request, although those instances are infrequent.”

The Fort Morgan facility slaughters and breaks down some 4,500 cattle per day, and though Martin won’t say exactly how much money or volume was lost due to employees walking off, he says production was “reduced significantly.” In January, Cargill changed its policy to allow the fired workers to return to the plant sooner, but has yet to tweak its prayer policy, and three months ago, a group of 130 Fort Morgan employees filed EEOC complaints accusing the company of not accommodating their religious practices. (At press time it was unclear whether the dispute had been settled—information about EEOC filings becomes public only if charges reach the lawsuit phase.)

EEOC administrative law judge Nick Pladson won’t comment on the Cargill case but says few complaints with the commission ever go to court. “When somebody files a charge, virtually every case gets the chance to go through mediation,” he says. So Cargill and its Muslim workers could find some middle ground. “In some cases there are just difficulties with the accommodation being sought, and there’s some give-and-take that needs to occur between employees and the employer,” says Pladson, pointing to a 2008 EEOC lawsuit against chicken producer GNP.

The suit accused GNP of unfairly firing or disciplining Muslim employees for taking worship breaks at processing plants in Cold Spring, Minn., and Arcadia, Wis. During the settlement process, GNP, which refused to comment for this story, agreed to pay the employees $215,000 in compensatory wages. It also reached a scheduling compromise with its Muslim employees. Working within its existing break structure, GNP added a flexible 10-minute break per shift to accommodate prayer (to avoid preferential treatment claims from non-Muslim employees, it offered the break to all employees).

Though GNP resolved the matter, it did so via consent decree, meaning without admission of guilt. As the court document states, “Gold’n Plump has denied it has engaged in any unlawful or discriminatory conduct or practices, and disputes that any conduct attributed to it violates Title VII.”

Like the Cargill case, the GNP suit paints religious accommodation as a wedge issue between employers and employees. Other times, such disputes arise out of misunderstanding. As Lohs from IWCO puts it, “With prayer breaks, we didn’t know what we didn’t know.”

New legal ground

n Prayer-break cases are relatively new, thus there’s no set legal standard for how they should be handled. Historically, says the U’s Befort, religious accommodation complaints in the workplace involved requests for time off during holidays or disputes over clothing policies—Jewish employees wanting to wear yarmulkes on the job, for example, or Pentecostal women refusing to don work pants because their faith required them to wear long skirts. “Because prayer cases are so complex,” he says, “the courts haven’t firmly decided on the issue one way or the other.”

While the definition of “undue hardship” for employers remains a moving target, Hussein says high-profile cases such as the GNP lawsuit play an important role in educating other companies about the needs of Muslim workers. “We’ve seen the cultural divide between East Africans and the broader community close somewhat,” he says, adding that General Mills and other Fortune 500 companies have done an especially good job of adapting to Islamic religious practice. “But there’s still a lot of work to be done.”

Since 2010, the Minneapolis EEOC office has received 112 complaints from Muslim workers claiming that employers had refused religious requests. Three of those charges were aimed at Swedish appliance manufacturer Electrolux, which has a factory in St. Cloud where hundreds of Somalis work the night shift. In the complaints, Muslim employees say the company ignored their requests to take special breaks during the Islamic holy month Ramadan.

Electrolux granted the breaks after 2010 and 2014 complaints, but did not do so after a similar dispute in 2011. In a prepared statement for the St. Cloud Times in 2011, Electrolux argued that the company’s schedule at the time “reasonably and effectively accommodated the needs of its employees.”

St. Cloud has seen its share of tension between East African residents and the broader community. Anti-Islam rallies have been held in the city, racist graffiti has appeared on Somali-owned storefronts, and in 2013, when area Muslims submitted plans to build a new mosque, the City Council received comments that the place of worship would encourage terrorism.

At an October event addressing racial issues in St. Cloud, Gov. Mark Dayton stressed the important role people of color play in the state’s economy. “Look around you,” Dayton remarked to the diverse crowd gathered at the St. Cloud Public Library. “Minnesota is not like it was 30, 50 years ago. But this is Minnesota and you have every right to be here. And anybody who cannot accept your right to be here should find another state.” Later in his talk Dayton added, “Our economy cannot expand based on white, B+, Minnesota-born citizens. We don’t have enough.”

Hussein insists it’s in the business community’s best interest to accommodate Muslim employees. “A lot of companies work with us to learn more about the Somali community,” he says. “When they do the education, they improve the workplace and their bottom line across the board.”

A few years after its own Islam 101 moment, IWCO appears to have struck a balance between its workflow demands and the religious needs of employees such as Muse Mohamed, an electrician who helps maintain laser printers and other equipment. Mohamed left Somalia in 1996 for Minnesota, where his father and a few siblings were already living. He says fleeing his embattled native country was hard, but that the Twin Cities welcomed him.

After working in the food industry and construction for many years, Mohamed landed at IWCO, where he’s been for nearly 8 years. He works at night, and prays two to three times per shift in the cubicle-like spaces provided by the company.

Though he acknowledges the differences between him and other employees, Mohamed says he enjoys IWCO’s melting-pot atmosphere. “There are so many different people and cultures here,” he says with a laugh, “but we all get along very well.” tcbmag

Chris Clayton is a Twin Cities writer and editor. His most recent byline was a profile of Minneapolis NAACP president Nekima Levy-Pounds for MplsStPaul Magazine.