Tortilla Maker Accused
Of Religious Intolerance
Against Muslim Workers
By Christopher W. Olmsted
As reported in the Minneapolis Star Tribune on May 28th, a group of Muslim workers allege they were fired by a Mission Foods tortilla factory for refusing to wear uniforms that they say were immodest by Islamic standards. Employers are reminded, by this example, of their obligation to reasonably accommodate religious beliefs and practices.
"Six Somali women claim they were ordered by a manager to wear pants and shirts to work instead of their traditional Islamic clothing of loose-fitting skirts and scarves." The women have filed a religious discrimination complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
A Mission Foods spokesperson stated that the women were not fired, but rather suspended, because they refused to comply with a company uniform policy.
Presumably the claim is based on Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of l964. The law prohibits employers from discriminating against individuals because of their religion in hiring, firing, and other terms and conditions of employment. Employers must reasonably accommodate employees' sincerely held religious practices unless doing so would impose an undue hardship on the employer.
The case will likely focus on whether (1) the clothing in question related to a religious practice or belief; (2) whether the employer could have reasonably accommodated traditional Islamic clothing in the factory; or whether (3) accommodating the clothing would have imposed an undue hardship on the employer. Perhaps the company had health, safety, or other reasons for the uniform policy.
The EEOC has published guidelines for the religious accommodation of Muslims and ethnic groups from Middle Eastern and Far Eastern countries. To read the guidelines: Employee Religious Accommodation Facts and Employer Religious Accommodation Information
The guidelines include the following FAQ:
Q: "I am a Sikh man and the turban that I wear is a religiously-mandated article of clothing. My supervisor tells me that my turban makes my coworkers "uncomfortable," and has asked me to remove it What should I do?"
A: "If a turban is religiously-mandated, you should ask your employer for a religious accommodation to wear it at work. Your employer has a legal obligation to grant your request if it does not impose a burden, or an "undue hardship," under Title VII. Claiming that your coworkers might be "upset" or "uncomfortable" when they see your turban is not an undue hardship."
Q: Muhammad, who is Arab American, works for XYZ Motors, a large used car business. Muhammad meets with his manager and complains that Bill, one of his coworkers, regularly calls him names like "camel jockey," "the local terrorist," and "the ayatollah," and has intentionally embarrassed him in front of customers by claiming that he is incompetent. How should the supervisor respond?
A:Managers and supervisors who learn about objectionable workplace conduct based on religion or national origin are responsible for taking steps to correct the conduct by anyone under their control. Muhammad's manager should relay Muhammad's complaint to the appropriate manager if he does not supervise Bill. If XYZ Motors then determines that Bill has harassed Muhammad, it should take disciplinary action against Bill that is significant enough to ensure that the harassment does not continue.
Workplace harassment and its costs are often preventable. Clear and effective policies prohibiting ethnic and religious slurs, and related offensive conduct, are needed. Confidential complaint mechanisms for promptly reporting harassment are critical, and these policies should be written to encourage victims and witnesses to come forward. When harassment is reported, the focus should be on action to end the harassment and correct its effects on the complaining employee.
ANOTHER RELIGIOUS ACCOMMODATION EXAMPLE
Q: Three of the 10 Muslim employees in XYZ's 30-person template design division approach their supervisor and ask that they be allowed to use a conference room in an adjacent building for prayer. Until making the request, those employees prayed at their work stations. What should XYZ do?
A: XYZ should work closely with the employees to find an appropriate accommodation that meets their religious needs without causing an undue hardship for XYZ. Whether a reasonable accommodation would impose undue hardship and therefore not be required depends on the particulars of the business and the requested accommodation.
When the room is needed for business purposes, XYZ can deny its use for personal religious purposes. However, allowing the employees to use the conference room for prayers likely would not impose an undue hardship on XYZ in many other circumstances.
Similarly, prayer often can be performed during breaks, so that providing sufficient time during work hours for prayer would not result in an undue hardship. If going to another building for prayer takes longer than the allotted break periods, the employees still can be accommodated if the nature of the template design division's work makes flexible scheduling feasible. XYZ can require employees to make up any work time missed for religious observance.
In evaluating undue hardship, XYZ should consider only whether it can accommodate the three employees who made the request. If XYZ can accommodate three employees, it should do so. Because individual religious practices vary among members of the same religion, XYZ should not deny the requested accommodation based on speculation that the other Muslim employees may seek the same accommodation. If other employees subsequently request the same accommodation and granting it to all of the requesters would cause undue hardship, XYZ can make an appropriate adjustment at that time. For example, if accommodating five employees would not cause an undue hardship but accommodating six would impose such hardship, the sixth request could be denied.
Like employees of other religions, Muslim employees may need accommodations such as time off for religious holidays or exceptions to dress and grooming codes.
The EEOC reports that in Fiscal Year 2007, the agency received 2,880 charges of religious discrimination. EEOC resolved 2,525 religious discrimination charges and recovered $6.4 million in monetary benefits for charging parties and other aggrieved individuals (not including monetary benefits obtained through litigation).
More Legal Update articles.
Download entire June Legal Update in PDF format.
This article is intended as a brief overview of the law and are not intended to substitute as legal advice. Any questions or concerns regarding any statute or case law should be addressed to a licensed attorney. Copyright © 2008 by Barker Olmsted & Barnier, APLC. San Diego, California. All rights reserved.