FORT MORGAN — One afternoon this summer, Asha Abuukar said, she approached her supervisor at the Cargill Meat Solutions plant and got permission to go on break.
She washed in accordance with Islamic principles and prayed in a “reflection room” Cargill has set aside where beef is boxed and sealed.
When she returned two minutes late, she said, her supervisor told her that if it happened again, she would be fired.
“I’m sorry,” Abuukar, 41, who also runs a Somali market in town, recalled replying. “I was only praying.”
Although Cargill’s Fort Morgan operation has escaped controversy over accommodating the religious needs of its Muslim workforce, an undercurrent of problems exists, according to current and former workers and Somali translators.
Company officials say they respect religious rights and follow the law but cannot undermine a plant that produces 4 million pounds of beef daily.
“We know that some of our employees would like a guaranteed prayer time every day,” said Cargill spokesman Michael Martin. “That is not the legal requirement, and it would be impractical to accommodate this without shutting down the production line.”
He said the company accommodates the vast majority of daily prayer requests.
Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, employers cannot deny a “reasonable” religious accommodation request as long as it does not pose an undue hardship, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Muslims pray five times a day at prescribed times that move depending on the sun’s position. That can pose challenges for plants with many Muslim workers. One-fourth of Cargill’s 2,000 workers are Somali, company officials say.
The number of federal workplace-discrimination complaints filed by Muslims shot up in 2009 and 2010, to almost 800 each year, the EEOC says. Those numbers eclipsed the decade’s previous high mark the year after 9/11.
“It’s not a good thing when you have a family and you are supporting your wife, your kids,” said Abdinasser Ahmed, a former Cargill worker.
Despite concerns from some Somali workers, Matthew Fazakas, food processing contract director for Teamsters Local 455, said Cargill has accommodated the workers on several fronts.
Fort Morgan plant manager Nicole Johnson-Hoffman said management seeks solutions to prayer requests and complaints on a case-by-case basis.
She said Cargill created safe places to pray with two reflection rooms — oversized cubicles with separate spaces for men and women with prayer rugs replacing the cardboard boxes workers were using.
She also said Somali leaders sought out by the company determined workers’ needs were being met.
“We believe people have the right to practice their sincerely held religious beliefs and that it’s our obligation and responsibility to do what we can to accommodate that,” she said.
Cargill has avoided the rancor that has plagued JBS Swift & Co. in Greeley and other food plants nationwide. In 2008, about 100 Somali Muslim workers were fired after they did not report to work in protest of Swift’s refusal to give them a prayer break during the holy month of Ramadan.
The EEOC found Swift had engaged in a “pattern and practice of discrimination” and sued the company last year.
Asha Abuukar said her Cargill supervisor has told her to wait until another break to pray. Or he asks why she cannot pray at home.
Said Abuukar: “We ask, ‘Why you giving us a place to pray if we aren’t given the time to pray?’ ”