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Islamic Prayer Breaks And Undue Hardship: Listing The Requirements And The Risk

Written exclusively for ChubbWorks

Cargill Meat Solutions will pay $1.5 million for terminating 138 Somali-American Muslim workers for requesting prayer breaks.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued the employer for terminating the Muslim employees, who worked at its Colorado plant, in 2016. According to the lawsuit, the employer terminated them for protesting the plant managers' decision to stop providing short breaks for prayer.

The employer will pay $1.5 million to the terminated workers to settle the lawsuit. In addition, the meatpacker agreed to provide prayer breaks as an accommodation to the hundreds of Somali-Americans who work at its Colorado plant. "$1.5M settlement for Muslim workers fired in prayer dispute," (Sep. 14, 2018).

Commentary and Checklist

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits workplace discrimination based on religion. Employers must provide reasonable accommodations for sincerely-held religious beliefs or practices, unless the accommodation would impose an undue hardship on the employer.

An inconvenience or preference does not constitute an undue hardship. An undue hardship must be more than a minimal burden on business operations.

Generally, prayer breaks do not cause undue hardship for most employers. Employers may ask employees to make up the time spent in prayer at other times of the day and simply schedule other employees to cover when an employee is in prayer.

Before making a decision, employers should understand and know what constitutes a prayer break for most Muslim employees.

Islam mandates five daily prayers at prescribed times. The noon and afternoon prayers fall within the standard workday. Each of these two daily prayer sessions takes 10 to 15 minutes. Employers may require Muslim employees to perform noon prayers during their lunch break.

Muslim employees must wash their hands, mouth, nose, face, arms, and feet before praying, so restroom facilities with sinks must be available.

Muslims are face down and prone during prayer, so if the employees do not have an office in which to perform prayers, consider closing off a room for them to use during that time.

Employees must be excused from all work duties while they are performing required prayers. Coworkers and managers may not interrupt them with questions or request them to take a phone call during that time.

Friday noon prayers for Muslims last longer, 45 to 90 minutes, and must be performed at a mosque or hall. Employers should allow Muslim employees to attend this service during an extended lunch. Employers may require employees to make up lost work time at the end of the day.

The practices of other religions may require different accommodations. Here are some examples of other types of religious accommodations that employers may be required to provide:

  • Scheduling changes
  • Voluntary substitutes and shift swaps
  • Dress code exceptions
  • Change of job tasks and lateral transfers
  • Modifying workplace practices, policies and procedures - including grooming standards, use of facilities, and tests
  • Excusing union dues or agency fees, or
  • Permitting prayer and other forms of religious expression.
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