Being Muslim in Minnesota: Prayer -- and controversy -- at work

Mohamednour Aded was injured on the job.
Mohamednour Aded, 38, came to the United States in 2013. During his time working at one of American Foods Group's meat-processing plants, he observed his daily prayers while hiding in the bathroom. "I was afraid they would fire me if they [saw] me praying," he said.
Tom Baker for MPR News

Mohamednour Aded was ecstatic when he landed his first job in the U.S., just a week after arriving in St. Cloud. But he never imagined he would end up hiding in a bathroom to observe his daily prayers.

For nine months, Aded said, he put in more than 60 hours a week at Long Prairie Packing Co., a beef processing plant in central Minnesota owned by American Foods Group. He cut cows into halves and sliced bones into smaller parts.

As a practicing Muslim, Aded, 38, is strict about observing the five daily prayers required in Islam. The prayers are spread throughout the day and take about five to 10 minutes.

"My faith is important to me," Aded said. "I love it more than my own children. It's the only life I have."

Adhering to that practice became a challenge at the plant. When he needed to take a prayer break at a certain time, Aded said, he would lie about it. He would tell his supervisor that he was going to the bathroom.

Aded would then grab a small rag from his locker, head straight to the bathroom and stretch the rag onto the floor. He would face Mecca, quickly do his prayers and return to the line. The bathroom was the only place in the plant he felt comfortable praying, he said.

"I was afraid they would fire me if they [saw] me praying," he said.

In recent years, prayer breaks have created conflicts between Muslim workers and their employers across the country.

Muslim workers in Wisconsin and Colorado recently walked off the job in disputes over prayer breaks, alleging that their employers changed policies that had accommodated Muslim prayer.

Some of the Muslim workers in Colorado who walked out over prayer disputes worked at a plant run by Wayzata, Minn.-based Cargill. The company said its policies have not changed and it makes "every reasonable attempt" to accommodate employees' religious beliefs as long as that doesn't disrupt production lines.

"While reasonable efforts are made to accommodate employees, accommodation is not guaranteed every day and is dependent on a number of factors that can, and do, change from day to day," said Mike Martin, a Cargill spokesperson.

The federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 mandates that employers accommodate their workers' religious practices — unless doing so would create an "undue hardship" for the employer.

'Snow, lack of work and hardship' in Minnesota

There's a hint of sadness in Aded's face. A tall, thin man, he sometimes wonders if coming to the United States from the Horn of Africa was a good decision.

He said he was fired from the Long Prairie plant in September 2015 after nine months on the job. American Foods Group did not respond to a request for comment on the matter.

When they came to the U.S. in 2014, Aded, his wife and two teenage daughters first landed in Texas. They only stayed for three months. They couldn't bear the loneliness of being refugees in a state where they didn't know anyone and couldn't communicate with their neighbors. The family had a relative in St. Cloud, so they relocated.

Life had felt normal in the Qabri Bayah refugee camp in Ethiopia, Aded said. He has a high school-level education, but was able to support his family by doing manual labor.

Now, his relatives back home in Ethiopia are counting on him for support, but his life in Minnesota has turned out to be miserable.

"At the moment, my life in Qabri Bayah was better than the one I'm currently living," said Aded, as he sat in an empty classroom at the Islamic Center of St. Cloud one January afternoon. "I've not seen anything good while I was in America except snow, lack of work and hardship."

Turkey plant 'like a mosque' during prayer time

Mohamed Yusuf, 33, of St. Cloud, is also a recent arrival to Minnesota from Ethiopia. The father of five works at Jennie-O Turkey Store in Melrose, Minn., about 30 miles northwest of St. Cloud.

No one interferes with Muslims' religious practices at Jennie-O, he said.

His first day on the job, Yusuf met a Somali interpreter who translated all his questions and concerns to the supervisor. He was told he could pray any time.

At Jennie-O, "it's like a mosque," said Yusuf, who works the night shift. He said he feels as though he doesn't have to choose between his job and his faith.

The supervisor has the daily prayer schedule, he said, and when the prayer time comes, he allows Muslim employees take a break to pray.

Mohamed Yusuf in the prayer room
Mohamed Yusuf works at a Jennie-O Turkey Store plant in Melrose, Minn. He came to the United States in 2013 from the Qabri Bayah refugee camp in Ethiopia.
Tom Baker for MPR News

"Our company respects all cultures and makes accommodations for our employees' religious beliefs whenever possible," Jennie-O Turkey said in a statement.

Before he started at Jennie-O, Yusuf worked for another meat-processing firm, GNP Co., in Cold Spring, Minn. He said he was fired after less than two weeks on the job. GNP, formerly known as Gold'n Plump, said it won't comment on the cases of individual employees.

Yusuf said his time at GNP was a stark contrast to his experience now at Jennie-O. He said GNP didn't give Muslims enough time to pray outside regularly scheduled company breaks. GNP said it schedules regular breaks around Muslim prayer times in one section of its Cold Spring processing plant. The company allows two 10-minute breaks for all workers — one that falls before lunch and one after.

"While the first break time is fixed, the second break time after lunch may fluctuate depending on shift and time of year, to enable either the second break time or a portion of the lunch break time to fall within the Muslim prayer window," GNP said in a statement.

Gold'n Plump instituted the second 10-minute break in 2008 after the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed a religious discrimination lawsuit against the company on behalf of Muslim workers. Gold'n Plump reached a landmark settlement with between 40 and 80 Muslim workers and agreed to pay $215,000 to workers who lost their jobs or were disciplined over prayer breaks.

The Work Connection, a staffing agency based in St. Paul which had handled hiring for Gold'n Plump, was also accused in the suit of asking Muslim applicants to sign a form acknowledging that they would not refuse to handle pork. Those who would not sign the form were not hired, according to the lawsuit. In the settlement, the Work Connection paid $150,000 to workers and agreed to stop using the form.

Religious discrimination complaints in Minnesota

Muslim immigrants are vulnerable to exploitation and abuses in the workplace, said Stephen Philion, a sociology profesor at St. Cloud State University and director of the university's Faculty Research Group on Immigrant Workers in Minnesota.

"This is the kind of population that we typically find working in meatpacking plants and are subject to the worst kinds of abuses from temporary agencies," he said.

New immigrants, who often get their first jobs through temporary agencies, he said, usually don't know their workplace rights — and typically don't have a union to advocate for them.

Dr. Stephen Philion. sociology professor at SCSU
Stephen Philion is the director of St. Cloud State University's Faculty Research Group on Immigrant Workers in Minnesota.
Tom Baker for MPR News

"There's no single immigrant group in the history of the United States that has moved forward and attained any real power within the society without securing decent wages, representation at the workplace, reliable work, and the like, that has already occurred through organizing, invariably labor organizing," said Philion, who also chairs the Greater Minnesota Worker Center, an organization that advocates for and organizes low wage workers with a focus on recently arrived immigrants in St. Cloud.

Since 2010, Muslim workers have filed 112 complaints with the EEOC office in Minneapolis alleging failure to accommodate religious prayer at the workplace. Those complaints include three filed against meat processors in 2010, although the EEOC wouldn't name the companies involved because it hasn't filed any lawsuits in those cases.

The EEOC's Minneapolis office handles cases from Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota. Julie Schmid, acting director for the EEOC in Minneapolis, said the "overwhelming majority of charges are from Minnesota."

Most disputes between workers and employers arise from a lack of understanding, Philion said. He added that a lack of training in cultural or religious understanding at meat processing companies contributes to that disconnect.

And some workers, like Somalis in St. Cloud working at meat-processing plants, may be willing to compromise and sacrifice bathroom or other breaks just to carry out their religious practices, Philion added.

"If they are at the bottom of the economic ladder," Philion said, "that makes it very difficult for them to integrate into the society or to be part of the society with any real say, with any real input, with any real power."

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