Prayer Breaks Sought by Muslim Employees to be Instituted;
Total of $365,000 to be Paid, Job Offers Made in Two Cases
MINNEAPOLIS – The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) announced today that Magistrate Judge Jeanne J. Graham of the U.S. District Court in St. Paul, Minn., has ordered final approval of consent decrees settling two religious discrimination lawsuits brought by the EEOC against a leading St. Cloud, Minn.-based chicken processor, Gold’n Plump Poultry, Inc., and an employment agency, The Work Connection.
Under the decree approved in the Gold’n Plump case, the employer will add a paid break during the second half of each shift which will accommodate the religious beliefs of Muslim employees who wish to pray in the course of the work day. The break is in addition to a break early in the shift and lunch breaks which are required by law. The timing of the added break will fluctuate during the year to coordinate with the religious timing for Muslim prayers. The new break times will apply to all who work in a designated portion of the plant, regardless of religious faith.
“Employers need to recognize the increasing diversity of religion in our country and provide accommodations as required by federal employment discrimination laws,” stated EEOC Acting Chairman Stuart J. Ishimaru. “Systemic cases such as these make workplaces better for many individuals.”
In addition to other related relief, Gold’n Plump will provide $215,000 to a class of 128 Somali American Muslims who claimed religious discrimination, including discharge and discipline. An additional $150,000 will be paid to 28 class members under the consent decree entered in EEOC v. The Work Connection. EEOC attorneys determined the amount each of the 156 individuals will receive. The amount ranges from $200 to $18,880 per person. Most class members will receive between $500 and $1,500. The recipients and amounts of the payment were approved by the court.
The EEOC had alleged in EEOC v. The Work Connection 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 provide each of the 28 class members, job seekers previously turned away for refusing to sign the “pork form,” with an offer for placement at Gold’n Plump. The decrees in both cases prohibit retaliation by the employers and provide for training and reporting to the EEOC.
EEOC Chicago Regional Attorney John Hendrickson said, “The court’s final approval of this settlement validates the progress the parties had made in providing an acceptable solution to the conflict between the religious obligations of the Muslim workers and the efficient operation of Gold’n Plump’s business. The settlement was achieved because the parties pursued a solution collaboratively.”
EEOC Trial Attorney Nick Pladson in Minneapolis (part of the agency’s Chicago district), added, “When employees identify aspects of their religious beliefs that conflict with their employment, employers must engage these workers to explore solutions. Employers who take a ‘my way or the highway’ approach to requests for religious accommodation clearly do so at their peril.”
The EEOC 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). The court had granted preliminary approval to the consent decrees on Nov. 7, 2007. In the interim since the preliminary approval, the EEOC assessed claims for monetary relief received from class members. The amounts determined by the EEOC were provided for in the consent decree finally approved by the court. In addition to Hendrickson and Pladson, the EEOC was represented by Associate Regional Attorney Jean Kamp.
The consent decrees were the result of a series of mediation sessions conducted by Magistrate Judge Graham and by retired federal Magistrate Judge Jonathan G. Lebedoff.
Religious discrimination charge filings with EEOC offices nationwide increased to a record level of 3,273 in Fiscal Year 2008, a 13.6% jump over FY 2007. 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. The Section is available online at http://www.eeoc.gov/policy/docs/religion.html
The EEOC enforces federal laws prohibiting employment discrimination. Further information about the EEOC is available on the agency’s web site at www.eeoc.gov.