Minn. company to allow Somalis prayer breaks

The agreement is among the first in the nation that requires employers to accommodate the Islamic prayer schedule and the belief, held by many strict Muslims, that the Quran prohibits the touching and eating of pork products.

"For this group of Americans at this time in our nation's history, this is a very important outcome," said Joe Snodgrass, a St. Paul attorney who represented workers in the case.

A class-action lawsuit was brought in 2006 on behalf of nine Somali immigrants who worked at Gold'n Plump plants in Cold Spring, Minn., and Arcadia, Wis.

An attorney for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity told the Star Tribune that both sides have reached a settlement in principle.

The lawsuit accused the Work Connection, an employment agency based in St. Paul that hired workers for Gold'n Plump's plants in Cold Spring and Arcadia, of requiring Muslim applicants to sign a "pork acknowledgment form," in which they agreed to handle pork products. It was alleged in the complaint that Somali workers who did not sign the document were not hired.

Jeff Wold, vice president of the Work Connection, said his company "categorically denied all the allegations of discrimination" and was "happy to say that this case has been resolved."

The settlement will include an undisclosed sum of money for some employees. Some workers may receive new offers of employment at Gold'n Plump.

A spokesman for privately owned Gold'n Plump confirmed that an agreement had been reached in principle and said in a statement that a formal process must now begin to obtain final court approval for the settlement. In a separate statement released Wednesday, Gold'n Plump said the settlement includes an agreement that the company has not admitted to any wrongdoing.

The company also said that the 10-minute breaks will take place at a specific time and be given to all employees - including non-Muslims - working in a portion of the plant.

The federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 says employers must accommodate workers' religious beliefs, so long as the requests are "reasonable" and do not create "undue hardship" for the employer.

But the vague wording of the act has left much room for interpretation. Some employers, especially manufacturers, have argued that frequent prayer breaks disrupt work flow and reduce productivity.

(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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