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What duty of religious accommodation do employers face?

A recent employee dispute at a meat packing plant in a state other than California has generated a lot of headlines in recent weeks. Because of the nature of the story and the tense global atmosphere in the world, it seems fair to expect that many people might have questions about the events and whether any workplace discrimination claims might be in the offing.

The story generating all the interest involves the firing of about 190 Muslim employees at a plant owned and operated by privately held Cargill Meat Solutions. Most of the workers are Somali refugees and were part of a workforce made up of more than 2,000 people. They reportedly were all working on a single production line.

Company officials say they were fired after most of them failed to report to work for three days running. According to reports, that may have been the contractual basis the company used for taking action, but workers and their advocates say the big issue is one of religious discrimination.

According to the workers, the company changed times that workers were allowed to take for prayer breaks. But the company says long-standing policies have not changed.

A spokesman says the company does make reasonable efforts to accommodate workers’ religious practices. But he says they are not required nor guaranteed and sometimes are adjusted depending on production demands.

Whether this activity might be able to be construed as discriminatory depends. Federal law does protect workers against employer actions that might create a consistently hostile environment.

Private employers also have some duty to accommodate an employee’s religious faith. But if the requested accommodation were to create an undue disruption to production, it might be OK for the employer to say no.

Workers who feel they have been discriminated against do have rights. And to be sure that they are upheld, they should seek the counsel of an experienced employment law attorney.

Source: FindLaw, “Religion in the Workplace,” accessed Jan. 5, 2016

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