By Julie Turkewitz
FORT MORGAN, Colo. — The work is far from glamorous: The thermostat for much of the slaughterhouse is set near freezing, the clatter of machinery is almost deafening, and there is the matter of slicing cattle carcasses every day, eight hours a day.
But for the Somali refugees who settled in this community on Colorado’s eastern plains, jobs at Cargill Meat Solutions had become a path to the American dream. The positions started at $14 an hour, required little English and, for the most part, allowed time for prayer, in accordance with workers’ Muslim faith.
“If I can pray, I will do whatever they need,” said Abdukadir Ali, 28, who used to cut fat five days a week, wearing a metal protective vest and gloves three layers thick.
In mid-December, a dispute erupted between Muslim employees and Cargill managers over the role of prayer in the workplace. Employees say top managers told them that their religious breaks — previously allowed once or twice per shift, in 10-minute segments, after explicit permission from a supervisor — would be severely curtailed.
The company said no such change had been announced. But dozens of workers walked out in protest and, days later, Cargill fired 150 of them for abandoning their jobs.
The conflict has thrust livelihoods and the fate of a business into limbo, offering a case study of what happens when matters of religious accommodation knock heads with the demands of the American assembly line.
Fort Morgan had only recently adjusted to Muslim refugees in its midst. Now, it is watching them pack up and move out. The Cargill plant is struggling to find workers, and a green sign sags from an outer fence: “Hiring now.”
A decade ago, there were almost no Muslim families in Fort Morgan, an agricultural community about 90 minutes northeast of Denver. In the early 1990s, beef plant employees were Vietnamese, Mexican and Central American. But immigration raids in the mid-2000s pushed many Latinos out, and the Somalis replaced them, along with Eritreans, Moroccans and others.
Longtime residents adapted with each demographic change, bringing new interpreters to the schools and watching as shops offering quinceañera dresses became Somali grocery stores selling pastries called sambusas and a spongy teff-flour bread called injera. Today, there are about a thousand African refugees living in a city of fewer than 12,000 people. About two dozen languages are spoken in the schools.
Many of the Muslim workers came from Somalia by way of Dadaab, a mud-red community in Kenya that is the largest refugee camp in the world. Ask a plant employee to lift a sleeve or pull back a head scarf, and deep scars tell of encounters with rebel groups and journeys through war-torn countries.
Mr. Ali, the slicer of fat, traveled through Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan, Libya and Malta before arriving in Fort Morgan, where his best friend had already settled. His fiancée lives in Somalia, and now that he has been fired, he is unsure how he will bring her to the United States.
“You move, you move, you move, new place, new state, new friends, every time,” he said recently. “It’s very hard.”
Cargill said it had worked hard to accommodate Muslim employees since they began arriving in 2005, setting aside two cubicles for prayer and granting a “vast majority” of break requests. But the plant works on a carefully orchestrated schedule, slaughtering and disassembling 4,500 cattle a day. The first shift begins at 5:30 a.m. The second shift ends at 11:30 p.m. “Occasionally, there are times when staffing limitation does not allow granting of prayer requests,” said Mike Martin, a company spokesman.
“There has been no change to our religious accommodation policy,” he added. “The granting of prayer requests has always been based upon adequate staffing.”
Cargill is urging employees to return, but many said they would not reapply until worship breaks were guaranteed. Just 10 of the 150 fired workers have returned.
Cargill is hardly alone in trying to balance prayer and profit. A meatpacking plant in Greeley, Colo., run by a company called JBS encountered a similar conflict in 2008 and is facing federal allegations that it discriminated against workers by failing to provide reasonable religious accommodations. More recently, in Wisconsin, dozens of employees quit when Ariens, a lawn mower and snowblower manufacturer, told workers that they would have to pray during scheduled breaks, not when their religion dictated.
As the demographics of small-town America shift and more Muslim immigrants move in, it is a dynamic that is likely to play out again and again.
Lawyers representing about 130 workers from Cargill in Fort Morgan have filed discrimination complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the agency that enforces federal employment discrimination laws. They claim the company violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which requires employers to “reasonably accommodate” religious observance as long as the request does not pose an undue hardship to a business. (The agency would not say whether it has received the complaints or begun an investigation.)
Gatherings at the local mosque — an unmarked building tucked in an alley off Main Street — are only half full these days, because many people have already moved to find family in Denver or have taken up jobs at the Greeley plant.
And the imam, a slaughterhouse employee who was among the fired workers, said he, too, planned to leave.
“The community that was so tightly knit, all the neighbors have left and fragmented,” Said Ali, 30, said. “I’ll go wherever I can find a job, wherever they let me pray.”
Even non-Muslim employees are moving on.
“We were told: We’re going to cut down on the prayer,” said Adam Martinez, 39, a former supervisor who said he had quit after a boss asked him to write up an employee who left the line to worship. “Sometimes what’s right is right. These people didn’t come all the way here to get treated like dogs.”
The process of knitting together Fort Morgan’s disparate groups has not always been easy. When the Somalis arrived, for example, they had little experience behind the wheel, and the city’s 28-officer police force caught them running into parked cars and streets signs. Sometimes, the Somalis tried to barter for goods.
There were a few instances of anti-immigrant vandalism. In 2009, a vocal coffee shop owner named Candie Loomis started a contentious petition calling for refugees to leave. Six hundred people signed it, she said in an interview.
But officials and a nonprofit organization called OneMorgan County have worked hard to smooth misunderstandings. The police chief has attended driver education lessons and broken religious fasts with newly arrived refugees; the nonprofit offers English classes and a mentorship program, and it fields phone calls from residents curious about their new neighbors.
Several people said they worried the Cargill dispute would undo many of those efforts.
“We might be seeing another demographic shift that would ultimately affect the community at large,” Michaela Holdridge, the executive director of OneMorgan County, said. “We’re all just kind of standing by and watching.”
Source: New York Times