Central Nebraska has become the latest stage for an unfolding American drama. Tensions over Muslim workers' request for prayer time erupted into worker walkouts, protests, counterprotests, a brief plant shutdown and employee firings at a meatpacking plant in Grand Island.
The events last week at a JBS Swift & Co. plant echoed a controversy earlier this month at a Swift plant in Greeley, Colo. Each revolved around requests from Muslim workers, most of them Somali refugees, for break time to pray and, during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, to break their daily fast shortly after sunset.
It is a drama that has played out in other places, too. It has played out in different ways and at different venues, but often in meatpacking plants, where many Somali refugees work.
The Grand Island story is still evolving. Hundreds of Muslim workers, mostly Somalis, walked off the job last Monday, alleging they weren't being allowed to pray and break their daily fast.
The controversy is a complicated one involving religion, culture clashes, refugee resettlement, immigration, union contracts and factory demands in an increasingly diverse American work force.
"As we become more religiously diverse, we're seeing more and more of these kinds of issues that have been happening in other countries," said Collin Mangrum, a Creighton University law professor who last summer taught in Israel about workplace diversity. "We're not as used to it here."
The Grand Island plant and United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 22 announced a compromise that would allow Muslims to take breaks to pray and eat shortly after sunset.
Then an estimated 1,000 non-Muslim workers, including Hispanics, whites and Christian Sudanese refugees — walked off the job on Wednesday. They were protesting what they viewed as unfair treatment favoring the Muslims.
The compromise was withdrawn. About 50 to 80 Muslim workers then walked off the job Thursday, despite the threat of termination. When some tried to return to work Friday, they were told they had been fired, said Jill Cashen, a national spokeswoman for the food workers union.
The company has said about 90 Muslim workers were fired; a Somali group in Omaha says about 170 were terminated.
JBS Swift officials said in a statement Friday they were working with employees and the union to resolve the problems.
"All employees are free to conduct their sincerely held beliefs as long as it does not violate established rules," said the statement, released by JBS Swift spokeswoman Tamara Smid. "We have had several instances of employees walking off the production floor or leaving the plant without proper authorization."
Muslim workers involved in the prayer dispute will hold a meeting today in Grand Island to discuss their next move.
Swift and the Grand Island workers have a lot of company:
• In Greeley, 220 workers walked off the job early this month, saying they weren't being allowed to pray just after sunset. More than 100 were later fired.
• Chicken processor Gold'n Plump Inc. recently settled a lawsuit with nine Muslim employees of its Cold Spring, Minn., plant. The workers said they were required to handle pork, against their religious teachings, and that the company did not accommodate their prayer schedule.
• An uproar in Shelbyville, Tenn., went national in August after a Tyson Foods chicken plant and a labor union agreed to replace Labor Day as a paid holiday with a Muslim holiday.
A majority of the plant's 1,200 workers — including 700 Muslims, 250 of them Somalis — wanted the contract change. The plant later reinstated Labor Day as a paid holiday and allowed a personal day to be used for Eid al-Fitr, the end of Ramadan.
• At Mission Foods in New Brighton, Minn., six Somali Muslim women were dismissed from a tortilla factory in August for refusing to wear required uniforms. The women said the pants and shirts were immodest and a violation of their religion.
Complaints of religion-based employment discrimination are on the rise. The total number, from people of all religions, grew from 3,124 in 1997 to 4,489 in 2007, according to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Complaints from Muslim workers more than doubled in that decade, from 389 to 909.
"We can speculate that it is due to more religious diversity in the workplace — especially with the increase in the immigrant population," said Christine Saah Nazer, an EEOC spokeswoman.
The U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964 forbids employers to discriminate based on religion. It says they must "reasonably accommodate" workers on faith matters. But the act also says that an employer does not have to make adjustments for employees' religion if the changes would cause "undue hardships," such as lowering efficiency or decreasing safety.
Legally, that's the key test, Mangrum said. The facts of each case define what a reasonable accommodation is.
The Grand Island workers want reasonable accommodation — and it can be achieved without undue hardships, said an official with a civil rights and advocacy group, the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
Christina Abraham, civil rights director for the council's Chicago office, said the prayer time issue had simmered at the Swift plant for more than a year before erupting last week.
She said her organization had helped about 20 Grand Island workers file religious discrimination complaints to the EEOC in 2007.
At issue: following Islam's prayer schedule, which requires praying at five specified times of day. The prayers are one of the primary requirements of Islam, said Bilal Khaleeq, president of the Islamic Center of Omaha.
During Ramadan, observant Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset. That's part of what makes the timing of the prayer — and eating just after sunset — so critical.
The Grand Island workers "want just a few minutes to eat some dates and sweets, pray, and go back to work," said Abdur Rahman, a Somali Muslim leader in Omaha. "They don't want to be disruptive or make it a burden for the other workers."
That can be a challenge in a meatpacking plant. The production line is fast-moving and physically demanding, with work that involves knives and a reliance on co-workers, said Cashen, the food workers union spokeswoman.
Unlike in office cubicle-world, a meatpacking plant can face real safety problems or immediate production slowdowns when workers leave their posts, Cashen said.
It's unclear exactly what the on-again, off-again compromise was at Swift. But other Midlands meatpacking plants appear to have been able to work around the matter.
Sudanese refugee workers and Somali leaders in Omaha noted that Tyson Foods plants in Council Bluffs and in Dakota City and Lexington in Nebraska have large numbers of Muslim employees, yet have not had the controversy over prayer time.
Abraham of the Council on American-Islamic Relations said her organization was looking into how Tyson apparently accommodates the Muslim prayer schedule.
A Tyson spokesman declined to comment on specific Muslim prayer schedule requests.
"Since every plant location is different, our religious accommodation efforts are handled on a case-by-case basis," Tyson spokesman Gary Mickelson said by e-mail.
Problems have grown as the number of Muslim workers in factories has grown. In many cases they are from the African nation of Somalia, long torn by civil strife.
Most Somali Muslims in Nebraska came to the United States as refugees, said Kitcki Carroll of Lutheran Family Services in Omaha, which runs one of the three main refugee resettlement programs in the state.
Some were resettled from Africa to Omaha or Lincoln. Many of the workers and families in cities such as Grand Island and Lexington moved there from Minnesota or other states.
The reasons? They heard about jobs, a relatively low cost of living and a welcoming attitude toward refugees.
Those are the same factors cited by Sudanese people, whose migration to Omaha has made it home to the largest Sudanese refugee population in the United States. Most Sudanese refugees are Christian.
"The difference with the Somalis is the religious component," Carroll said. "The challenge for them is this is a country based in Christianity. The holy days we have off are Christian. Sundays off are based on Christianity. . . . That's absolutely going to pose some issues, and employers and employees need to find a middle ground."