The interplay between religious rights and the rights of employers has been a hot button issue in Indiana and around the country. Just recently, a situation in Colorado gained a lot of national attention.
Cargil Meat Solutions, a meat processing facility, employed a large number of Somali refugees at its plant in Fort Morgan, Colorado. Most of these employees were practicing Muslims. In order to accommodate their religious beliefs, the workers were allowed to utilize a break period to pray in a prayer and reflection room set up within the Cargil Meat Solutions facility. So far, so good. But an issue arose when 11 workers attempted to take their breaks simultaneously. The company denied the request and asked the workers to stagger their breaks so as not to effect production. Ten of the 11 workers resigned in protest following their shifts.
However, that was not the end of the protests. Approximately 150 additional workers who were upset about Cargil Meat Solutions’ actions decided to band together and miss 3 days in protest. In response, Cargil Meat Solutions fired all of those employees for violating the company’s attendance policy.
This situation presents an uncommon example of a common workplace issue. At what point do an employer’s rights trump the rights of its employees? This question is even more complicated when religion is involved. On one hand, religious employees are not required to completely abandon their beliefs once they enter the workplace. On the other hand, an employer has a right to operate its business as it sees fit, so long as it does so in a reasonable and non-discriminatory manner.
In the Cargil Meat Solutions situation, the company did seem to make accommodations for the Muslim employees by providing a designated room for prayer and reflection and by allowing breaks to be taken for prayers. Furthermore, if production was truly being impacted by having 11 workers take a simultaneous break, the mandate to spread out the breaks would seem like a reasonable one. What we don’t know is whether, and to what extent, production was actually being negatively impacted by the breaks being taken by those 11 employees, whether Cargil Meat Solutions had denied similar requests in the past, and whether other solutions (i.e. having other employees cover for the employees on break) were considered and/or possible. All of those things could have an impact on an analysis of whether discrimination based on religion might have occurred.
As for the 150 employees who were terminated due to violations of the attendance policy, Cargil Meat Solutions does have the right to enforce its attendance policy so long as it does so in a non-discriminatory manner. One caveat to that could be whether the employees were engaging in protected concerted activity under the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”). However, if the NLRA does not apply for whatever reason, Cargil Meat Solutions was well within their rights to terminate those employees as long as all employees, regardless of religion, who violated the attendance policy in a similar manner also had their employments terminated.
As religious rights in the workplace become more and more of an issue due to laws such as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (“RFRA”) that was recently passed here in Indiana, situations such as this could become more commonplace as employees attempt exercise their personal religious freedoms and employers seek to operate their business in the most efficient and legally-permissible way possible. When those two interests collide, litigation is often the result.
You can read more about this case at: http://www.cnn.com/2016/01/02/us/colorado-muslim-workers-fired-prayer-dispute/index.html