Several food-processing plants across the country have been in the news as they grapple with the requests of increasing numbers of Muslim workers seeking religious accommodations. Three disputes — all at meatpacking plants — centered on prayer breaks, especially important at Ramadan. During that month (which varies from year to year because it’s set on a lunar calendar), Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset and can eat only after a sunset prayer. At a Tennessee plant, an employer faced a backlash from employees when the union contract swapped out Labor Day for an end-of-Ramadan holiday, Eid al-Fitr. Employees have sought exceptions to rules on uniforms, saying it’s against their religion to wear slacks, and asked to be excused from handling pork on religious grounds.
How are these companies dealing with employees’ religious needs, and what can all employers learn from their experience? We’ll look at two recent situations and examine the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC) revision of its compliance manual on religious discrimination, prompted by the growing religious diversity of the American workplace and a rise in religious discrimination claims.
Sunset Means Sunset
One of the most publicized clashes occurred in Greeley, Colorado, during Ramadan this year. There, more than 200 Muslim meat-processing plant workers walked off their evening-shift jobs, saying the company, JBS Swift, had refused to let them take their breaks at sunset so they could pray.
Religious discrimination in the workplace is outlawed for most employers under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Employers have a duty to accommodate religious expression under Title VII. Once on notice, you must reasonably accommodate employees whose sincerely held religious beliefs or practices conflict with a work requirement. There’s an exception for accommodations that would create undue hardship for you. “Undue hardship” for religious accommodation purposes means the proposed accommodation poses “more than a de minimis” — or minimal — cost or burden.
So, assuming the employees in Greeley had given their employer notice of their religious needs, the employer was under a duty to reasonably accommodate them. A spokeswoman for JBS Swift told the Associated Press that the company had moved the employees’ meal break to 8:00 p.m. from 9:00 p.m. as an accommodation, but a Muslim spokesman said that sunset prayer must be performed at sunset, not at some other time.
EEOC’s Employer Best Practices
The EEOC’s new compliance manual lists employer best practices on reasonable accommodation of religious practices, including the following recommendations:
- Inform employees that the organization will make reasonable efforts to accommodate religious practices.
- Train managers and supervisors on how to recognize accommodation requests.
- Consider developing internal procedures for processing accommodation requests.
- Individually assess each request, avoiding assumptions and stereotypes.
- Train managers to gauge the actual disruption posed by religious expression in the workplace, rather than merely speculating that disruption may result.
- Don’t make assumptions about a collective bargaining agreement or seniority system; review the document or policy first.
- Meet promptly with employees to share information and discuss the request fully.
- You don’t have to give the employee his preferred accommodation if there’s more than one possible effective accommodation. Consider the employee’s preference and, if denied, explain the reasons for the decision.
- Consider alternative accommodations, including temporary measures.
- Train managers to be aware that if the requested accommodation would violate a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) or seniority system, they should confer with the employee to determine if an alternative accommodation is available. You’re also free to seek a voluntary change to a CBA to accommodate religious needs.
- Make sure managers understand that reasonable accommodation may require making exceptions to policies or procedures that aren’t part of a CBA or seniority system, if it wouldn’t infringe on other employees’ legitimate expectations.
Employee Best Practices
The EEOC also lists best practices for employees. It recommends that workers explain to supervisors the nature of the conflict between their religious needs and the work rules. Employees also should provide you with enough information to understand what accommodation is needed and why it’s necessitated by a religious practice or belief.
The company with the backlash over Eid al-Fitr, Tyson Foods, followed one of the EEOC’s best practices in dealing with the unhappy employees. It later reinstated Labor Day as a holiday at the Tennessee plant after asking the union to reopen the contract so it could address the issue. The union membership then voted to reinstate Labor Day as a paid holiday. Eid al-Fitr will be an additional paid holiday this year only. In future years, the eight paid holidays allowed under the contract will include a floating personal holiday that employees may take as they choose, subject to their supervisor’s approval.
The EEOC compliance manual doesn’t have the force of law, but it provides a key enforcement agency’s interpretation of legal requirements and ideas on how to work proactively with employees to prevent problems.
For More Information
The Council on American-Islamic Relations offers “An Employer’s Guide to Islamic Religious Practices,” available online at www.cair.com/Portals/0/pdf/employment_guide.pdf. The EEOC’s new compliance manual on religious discrimination can be found at www.eeoc.gov/policy/docs/religion.html. You can also find a Q&A section at www.eeoc.gov/policy/docs/qanda_religion.html and a list of best practices at www.eeoc.gov/policy/docs/best_practices_religion.html.