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Employment Law Blog

Friday, May 30, 2008

Tortilla Maker Accused Of Religious Intolerance Against Muslim Workers

As reported in the Minneapolis Star Tribune on May 28th here, a group of Muslim workers allege they were fired by a Mission Foods tortilla factory for refusing to wear uniforms that they say were immodest by Islamic standards.

“Six Somali women claim they were ordered by a manager to wear pants and shirts to work instead of their traditional Islamic clothing of loose-fitting skirts and scarves.” The women have filed a religious discrimination complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

A Mission Foods spokesperson stated that the women were not fired, but rather suspended, because they refused to comply with a company uniform policy.

Presumably the claim is based on Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of l964. The law prohibits employers from discriminating against individuals because of their religion in hiring, firing, and other terms and conditions of employment. Employers must reasonably accommodate employees’ sincerely held religious practices unless doing so would impose an undue hardship on the employer.

The case will likely focus on whether (1) the clothing in question related to a religious practice or belief; (2) whether the employer could have reasonably accommodated traditional Islamic clothing in the factory; or whether (3) accommodating the clothing would have imposed an undue hardship on the employer. Perhaps the company had health, safety, or other reasons for the uniform policy. In the context of industrial machinery, loose clothing may be dangerous. In the context of food processing, it may not be sanitary. The news report did not provide the employer’s justification. 

Noting an increase in discrimination after September 11, 2001, the EEOC has published guidelines for the religious accommodation of Muslims and ethnic groups from Middle Eastern and Far Eastern countries here and here.

The guidelines include the following FAQ:

Q: “I am a Sikh man and the turban that I wear is a religiously-mandated article of clothing. My supervisor tells me that my turban makes my coworkers ‘uncomfortable,’ and has asked me to remove it. What should I do?””

“If a turban is religiously-mandated, you should ask your employer for a religious accommodation to wear it at work. Your employer has a legal obligation to grant your request if it does not impose a burden, or an ‘undue hardship,’ under Title VII. Claiming that your coworkers might be ‘upset’ or ‘uncomfortable’ when they see your turban is not an undue hardship.”

The EEOC reports that in Fiscal Year 2007, the agency received 2,880 charges of religious discrimination. EEOC resolved 2,525 religious discrimination charges and recovered $6.4 million in monetary benefits for charging parties and other aggrieved individuals (not including monetary benefits obtained through litigation).

Submitted By:
Christopher W. Olmsted
Barker Olmsted & Barnier, APLC
San Diego Employment Law Attorneys