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Rehire Change Could Reopen The Door For Fired Muslim Workers In Fort Morgan

Luke Runyon
KUNC and Harvest Public Media
A sign outside the Cargill Fort Morgan beef processing plant advertises job openings in early January 2016.

After firing 150 workers from its Fort Morgan meatpacking plant, executives with Cargill’s beef division say they are open to rehiring some of those employees. The company announced this change to its rehire policy — shortening the amount of time to be eligible to reapply for jobs after termination from 6 months to 30 days — following a dispute regarding prayer accommodations.

The former employees, all of whom are Muslim and of east African descent, were let go after failing to show up at the plant for a three day period in late December 2015. A group of 11 workers say they were denied a break to pray individually during a Dec. 18 evening shift, and a subsequent request to pray as a small group was also denied. The company claims workers were allowed to pray individually, but not as a small group, during the Dec. 18 shift, and that prayer breaks are permitted if staffing levels are sufficient to keep sections of the plant up and running.

The rehire policy change may be too little, too late for both the plant, now short on labor, and for the unemployed group of Muslim workers. About 20 families have left Morgan County already in search of new jobs in Wyoming, Nebraska, Minnesota and Ohio, according to community leaders in Fort Morgan.

“Right now, if I don’t have work I’ve got to move out of state. I’m looking at other states, looking for a job,” says Sadiyo Abdi, one of the plant’s fired workers.

Her sister, Nurto Abdi, was also terminated for missing work during the prayer accommodation dispute. Both sisters say they want a commitment from Cargill to allow for prayer breaks during the second shift at the plant before they would reapply for their jobs.

Many of the fired workers say it’s unclear whether the company’s beef plant supervisors actually follow the religious accommodation policy already in place, which Cargill maintains was unchanged.

"The terminations at Fort Morgan appear to be based on a misunderstanding, or misinformation, about a perceived change in our religious accommodation policy that did not occur,” said Cargill Beef President John Keating in a statement. “Allegations that we were not going to allow prayer any longer are false.”

The Cargill plant is Fort Morgan’s largest employer with roughly 2,100 workers. The eastern plains city’s total population is about 12,000 people.

As KUNC’s managing editor and reporter covering the Colorado River Basin, I dig into stories that show how water issues can both unite and divide communities throughout the Western U.S. I edit and produce feature stories for KUNC and a network of public media stations in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, California and Nevada.
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