Cargill Dispute Highlights Employer Responsibilities Regarding Religious Workplace Accommodations

In the wake of Cargill’s recent religious accommodation dispute, employers should be aware of their responsibilities regarding religious workplace accommodations.  Cargill, the largest private company in the United States, made national headlines when it terminated 150 Muslim employees for failing to show up for work after a prayer dispute.[i]  While the company followed its neutral attendance and religious accommodation policies, the controversial nature of the terminations have sparked interest regarding religious accommodations in the workplace.  This article analyzes the Cargill terminations and an employer’s responsibilities regarding religious workplace accommodations.

A.        Cargill Accommodation Dispute

On December 18, 2015, a group of eleven Muslim workers at Cargill’s Fort Morgan, Colorado beef production plant requested a prayer break.[ii]  To accommodate its 2,100 employees, nearly one-third of whom are Muslim, the Fort Morgan plant has two “reflection rooms” where its employees, regardless of their religion, can pray.[iii]  To ensure that production does not slow down, the company’s policy allows one to three employees at a time to take approximately five-minute prayer breaks.[iv]  The employees’ supervisor granted the request, but asked the group to break into smaller numbers to avoid affecting production.[v]  While the employees complied with the request, ten of the eleven resigned at the end of their shift.[vi]  News of the dispute quickly made its way through the plant, with many employees believing that the company would no longer allow its employees to pray.[vii]  The following workweek approximately 150 Muslim employees did not call in or show up for their regularly scheduled shifts.[viii]  After three days of failing to call in or show up to work, Cargill terminated the employees pursuant to its attendance policy.[ix] 

B.        Employer Responsibilities under Title VII

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e, et seq. (“Title VII”), prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of religion, including refusing to reasonably accommodate an employee’s sincerely held religious beliefs.[x]  However, an employer is not required to provide a religious accommodation where it would result in an undue hardship on the employer.[xi]  Under Title VII, an undue hardship exists where the employer bears more than a minimal cost or burden.[xii]  Accordingly, if the accommodation request imposes a significant burden, the employer may refuse the request without violating Title VII. 

Whether a religious accommodation request actually imposes more than a minimal cost or burden is based on unique factors to the business, such as the type of workplace, nature of the employee’s work, identifiable burdens on the employer to accommodate the request, the size of the employer, and the number of employees who request the accommodation.[xiii]  For example, a request to pray by a group of employees at a large call center at a time where the employees’ absence will not affect the business likely is a reasonable request that should be accommodated.  However, a request to pray by one employee working at a fast food restaurant may be an undue hardship if the request is made during the lunch rush and the employee’s absence will slow production and affect the company’s customer service.  In the Cargill situation described above, the group of employees’ request to pray at the same time likely imposed an undue hardship on the company because the request, if granted, would have slowed production down. 

C.        Best Practices

Employers should ensure that managers who handle religious accommodation requests are trained to analyze each request based upon the employers’ unique circumstances and the company’s policies to determine whether the employee’s accommodation request imposes an undue hardship on the employer.  If the request is denied, management should communicate the reason for the denial to the employee and explain the business reason for denying the

 

[i] Mike Hughlett, Cargill changes hiring policy following dispute involving Muslim workers, Star Tribune (Jan. 8, 2016), http://www.startribune.com/cargill-changes-rehiring-policy-following-dispute-involving-muslim-workers/364656531/ (last accessed Jan. 12, 2016).

[ii] Id.  Muslims are required to pray five times daily.

[iii] Id.

[iv] Id.

[v] Jareen Imam, Nearly 150 Muslims fired for absences after prayer dispute at Colorado plant, CNN (Jan. 2, 2016), http://www.cnn.com/2016/01/02/us/colorado-muslim-workers-fired-prayer-dispute/ (last accessed Jan. 12, 2016).

[vi] See Hughlett, supra note 1. 

[vii] Id.

[viii] Id.

[ix] Id.  Failing to call in or show up for three days is grounds for termination under Cargill’s attendance policy.

[x] 42 U.S.C. § 2000e(j)

[xi] Id.

[xii] Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison, 432 U.S. 63, 84 (1977).  Notably, Title VII’s standard for “undue hardship” is less burdensome on employers than the Americans with Disabilities Act’s definition of “undue hardship” as requiring a “significant difficulty or expense.”  See 29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(p).

[xiii] See U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Questions and Answers: Religious Discrimination in the Workplace, http://www.eeoc.gov/policy/docs/qanda_religion.html (last visited Jan. 12, 2016).

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