Employee Matters: Learning to adapt
Islam, in particular, has been getting attention. In recent months, processors have had to tackle adaption to religious needs by employee request.
Tyson Foods Inc. has had the highest profile experience. For this company, the issue came up during union negotiations at Tyson’s Shelbyville, Tenn., plant. A result of the negotiations was the replacement of Labor Day as a paid holiday with Eid ul-Fitr, a religious holiday marking the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
“The company did not propose or initiate efforts to replace Labor Day with a religious holiday,” says Gary Mickelson, spokesman for Tyson. “Instead, it was a union-initiated demand brought about during negotiations for a new labor contract and was part of the overall contract proposal approved by union members.”
Mickelson says the company believes the union made the request because many of the plant’s Somali employees had asked for the day off. Many Somalis, who have been settling in the United States as refugees from a long-running civil conflict in their home country, are Muslim.
“We don’t track the religious affiliation of our workers; however, we can tell you approximately 250 of the 1,200 people employed at our Shelbyville plant are Somali,” Mickelson says. “We can also tell you our Shelbyville plant has three chaplains, who minister to team members of all faiths.”
He also points out that the plant, a fresh-chicken facility, is often open on Labor Day to meet consumer demand during the grilling season. Along with holiday pay, workers also received time-and-a-half for the hours worked.
Equal under the lawTyson was following, and continues to follow, federal law on dealing with religion in the workplace. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) says employers may not treat employees or applicants more or less favorably because of their religious beliefs or practices â€” except to the extent a religious accommodation is warranted. For example, an employer may not refuse to hire individuals of a certain religion, impose stricter promotion requirements for persons of a certain religion, or enforce more or different work requirements upon an employee because of that employee’s religious beliefs or practices.
Companies must also reasonably accommodate employees’ sincerely held religious practices unless doing so would impose an undue hardship on the employer. A reasonable religious accommodation is any adjustment to the work environment that will allow the employee to practice his religion. An employer might accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs or practices by allowing such actions as flexible scheduling, voluntary substitutions or swaps, job reassignments and lateral transfers, modification of grooming requirements and other workplace practices, policies and/or procedures.
Allegations of special treatment caused problems for JBS-Swift at its Grand Island, Neb., plant. The company had to deal with two separate walkouts while trying to deal with adaptations. The first walkout was among the Muslim workers, who claimed JBS-Swift was not being flexible enough in allowing prayer breaks. The company had adjusted the plant’s second-shift lunch hour to allow for sunset prayers, one of the five times Muslims must pray. JBS-Swift continued to work with both the Muslim workers and the union representing all employees at the plant with the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) mediating. For the company, the biggest issue was the walkout itself, which violated the collective bargaining agreement between JBS-Swift and United Food and Commercial Workers Local 22.
The company did adjust the schedule for the Muslim workers. That, however, sparked a walkout by non-Muslim workers who complained of special treatment that put a higher workload on them. The schedule was changed back to its original set-up and all workers returned to work.
Tyson’s actions included going back to the union. They asked Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) local at the plant to reconsider the provision that allowed for Eid ul-Fitr to be a paid holiday after both concerns from other workers and a surprisingly strong public reaction. Mickelson says the union agreed and allowed workers to vote on this issue alone. As a result, the union membership voted overwhelmingly to reinstate Labor Day as one of the plant’s paid holidays.
For the remainder of the five-year contract period between the RWDSU and the Shelbyville plant, the eight paid holidays will include New Year’s Day, Martin Luther King Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day and a Personal Holiday, which could either be the employee’s birthday, Eid ul-Fitr or another day requested and approved by their supervisor.
As the American population continues to change, challenges like this will arise again. In these cases, only one plant was involved, and the issue was handled by negotiations by the company and the union representing workers at the plant.
“We strive to reasonably accommodate our team members’ religious beliefs and practices, as required by the law,” says Mickelson.“In addition, one of Tyson’s Core Values is to be a faith-friendly company.”
The company uses multiple methods to improve communication when comes to adapting to religious needs, including its human resources, diversity and chaplaincy staff. In the end, the compromise reached with the union was acceptable by all the workers at the Shelbyville plant.
According to the EEOC, employers must permit employees to engage in religious expression, unless the religious expression would impose an undue hardship on the employer. Generally, an employer may not place more restrictions on religious expression than on other forms of expression that have a comparable effect on workplace efficiency.
Companies are also required to take steps to prevent religious harassment of employees. The EEOC says an employer can reduce the chance that employees will engage unlawful religious harassment by implementing an anti-harassment policy and having an effective procedure for reporting, investigating and correcting harassing conduct.
Tyson and JBS-Swift do follow the law and work to ensure a safe environment for all of its workers.
“JBS values its diverse workforce and has a long track record of making significant accommodations to employees,” says Tamara Smid, spokeswoman for JBS-Swift. “We work closely with all employees and union representation to accommodate religious practices in a reasonable, safe and fair manner.”
To learn about the requirements for employers, go to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission at http://www.eeoc.gov/ .