DENVER – Muslim Somali workers at two JBS Swift & Co. meatpacking plants in Colorado and Nebraska face ongoing harassment because of their race and religion, including being prevented from getting a drink at one of the plants after fasting all day during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleges.
A lawsuit filed by the EEOC late Monday in U.S. District Court in Denver alleges JBS officials shut off water fountains at its Greeley meatpacking plant, keeping Muslim Somali workers from getting a drink at sundown.
The suit says the water fountain incident happened in September 2008 and is part of a pattern of religious and racial harassment that continues at the plant. Workers also are denied prayer time and face termination for asking to pray, according to the lawsuit, which names as plaintiffs more than 80 current and former employees.
A second lawsuit filed by the EEOC in U.S. District Court in Omaha, Neb., alleges similar acts at the company's meatpacking plant in Grand Island, Neb.
Swift officials did not immediately return messages. Many workers named in the suit could not be reached for comment.
The lawsuit claims that Muslim workers trying to pray at the Greeley plant have been denied bathroom breaks, and are regularly harassed when they pray during their scheduled breaks or in the bathroom, with co-workers or managers using racist slurs and curse words. One restroom had graffiti with the words, "f--- Somalians," f--- Muslims," and "f--- Mohammed."
The Greeley plant was where 270 Hispanic employees were detained after a raid by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers in 2006. At least a hundred Somalis began working at the plant following the raids.
The lawsuit alleges that management knew or should have known about the harassment and acted with "malice or with reckless indifference" to the workers' rights. Despite complaints and suggestions for accommodations from workers, the EEOC alleges the company's practices date back to December 2007.
"If there's bad behavior in the company, people know what will be tolerated or if it will be punished," said Mary Jo O'Neill, the EEOC's regional attorney based in Phoenix who filed the lawsuit. "No one should have to endure being called those names in order to have work and support a family."
The workers' treatment at the plant came to a head during Ramadan in September 2008 when about 100 Muslims at the plant, who fast during the day during the holiday, asked company officials to move the plant's scheduled lunch break so they could break their fast at sunset.
Officials agreed and switched the lunch break from 9:15 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Three days later, the company changed the lunch hour to 8 p.m., shut off or cordoned off water fountains and posted management employees around the plant to enforce the change, according to the lawsuit. At their lunch break a half hour later than negotiated, Muslim workers were told to go outside to pray. They weren't allowed back into the plant.
Days later, several were fired for what the company said was an unauthorized work stoppage, the suit alleges.
The lawsuit seeks reinstatement of the workers with back pay, changes to policies and procedures to accommodate Muslim workers, payment for past and future damages, and punitive damages to be determined at trial.
A hearing date has not been scheduled.