Prayer Breaks Sought by Muslim Employees to be Instituted; Total of $365,000 to be Paid in Two Cases
MINNEAPOLIS – The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) today announced that a federal district court in St. Paul, Minn., recently approved consent decrees that settle two religious discrimination lawsuits against a leading St. Cloud, Minn.-based chicken processor, Gold’n Plump Poultry, Inc., and an employment agency, The Work Connection, which referred workers to it.
Under the decree preliminarily approved in the Gold’n Plump case, the employer will add a paid break during the second half of each shift which -- in addition to a break early in the shift and lunch breaks otherwise required by applicable law -- will accommodate the religious beliefs of Muslim employees who wish to pray during the course of the work day. The timing of the added break will fluctuate during the year so as to coordinate with the religious timing for Muslim prayers.
In addition to other related relief, Gold’n Plump will provide $215,000 in monetary relief to a class of Somali Muslims who claimed religious discrimination, including discharge and discipline. An additional $150,000 will be paid to class members under the consent decree entered in The Work Connection case. EEOC attorneys estimate that the total number of individuals receiving monetary relief in the cases after claims processing will be in the 40 to 80 range.
The decree in The Work Connection case has also been given preliminary approval and entered by the court. The EEOC had alleged in The Work Connection case that, in order to be referred for work at Gold’n Plump’s facilities in Cold Spring, Minn., and Arcadia, Wis., applicants were required to sign a form stating that they would not refuse to handle pork in the course of their jobs. In addition to stopping use of the “pork form,” The Work Connection will offer placement at Gold’n Plump to job seekers previously turned away for refusing to sign the form.
The EEOC held that both companies violated the religious discrimination prohibition of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The decrees in both cases prohibit retaliation by the employers and provide for training and reporting to the EEOC.
The consent decrees were the result of a series of mediation sessions conducted by federal Magistrate Judge Jeanne J. Graham of the St. Paul Division of U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota and by retired federal Magistrate Judge Jonathan G. Lebedoff. The EEOC joined the mediation as part of the conciliation process. Final approval and entry by the court of the consent decrees will occur after claims for relief are processed, and the court approves individual monetary distributions.
“Both of these cases reflect the EEOC’s determination, especially in this post-9/11 era, to be sensitive to the high level of religious diversity in the American labor force and to assure that all employers and employees do their best to accommodate our rich tapestry of religious beliefs and practices,” said Ronald S. Cooper, the EEOC’s General Counsel in Washington, D.C. “We are especially pleased that the employers shared our determination to reach a just and equitable result and that everyone will be able to avoid the burdens and delay of protracted litigation.”
Cooper noted that the EEOC participates in the Interagency Workgroup on Arab, Muslim, Sikh, and South Asian American Communities convened by the U.S. Department of Justice to address issues of concern to those communities in the wake of the events of 9/11.
John Hendrickson, the EEOC regional attorney for the Chicago District, which includes Minnesota, added, “These were complicated cases in which real differences posed real challenges. But everyone came to the table with the goal of finding a solution which would accommodate the needs of Gold’n Plump and The Work Connection to continue to conduct business and, at the same time, respect and accommodate the sincerely held religious beliefs and practices of their employees. In the end, cooperation and common sense prevailed, and today’s consent decrees are the result.”
The EEOC’s lawsuits were filed Sept. 8, 2008, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota, St. Paul Division. (EEOC v. Gold’n Plump Poultry, Inc., 0:08-cv-05136-DSD-JJG; EEOC v. The Work Connection, 0:08-cv-05137-DSD-JJG). The EEOC cases are docketed as related cases to a private case previously filed in the same court by certain of the class members. (Aware Daud, et al. v. Gold’n Plump Poultry, Inc. and The Work Connection, 0:06-cv-04013-DSD-JJG). In addition to Hendrickson, the EEOC was represented by Associate Regional Attorney Jean Kamp and Nicholas Pladson, an EEOC trial attorney in the Minneapolis Area Office.
On July 22, 2008, the EEOC issued a new Compliance Manual Section regarding religious discrimination, harassment and accommodation. The EEOC issued this section in response to an increase in charges of religious discrimination, increased religious diversity in the United States, and requests for guidance from stakeholders and agency personnel investigating and litigating claims of religious discrimination. Religious discrimination charge filings with the EEOC nationwide have risen substantially over the past 15 years, doubling from 1,388 in Fiscal Year 1992 to a record level of 2,880 in FY 2007.
The EEOC enforces federal laws prohibiting employment discrimination. Further information about the EEOC is available on its web site at www.eeoc.gov.