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EEOC, JBS ink $5.5 mln settlement over firing of Muslim workers

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A general view of the JBS USA Worthington pork plant in Minnesota, U.S., October 28, 2020. REUTERS/Bing Guan/File Photo

  • 2010 lawsuit said JBS fired workers who sought longer prayer breaks
  • JBS agreed to overhaul its antidiscrimination policies

(Reuters) - JBS USA LLC will pay $5.5 million to settle a long-running lawsuit by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission accusing the meatpacking company of firing scores of Somali Muslims who had sought longer prayer breaks during the holy month of Ramadan.

JBS, the EEOC, and several individual workers who intervened in the case filed a joint proposed consent decree in Colorado federal court on Friday which, if approved, would bring the heavily litigated 2010 lawsuit to an end. JBS denied wrongdoing.

The EEOC claimed JBS unlawfully fired approximately 200 Muslim employees at a Colorado plant. About 150 of them had staged a walkout after JBS barred them from taking unscheduled breaks to pray during Ramadan in 2008, and others were fired for taking unauthorized breaks, according to court filings.

Colorado-based JBS, the U.S. arm of Brazilian meatpacking giant JBS SA, and its lawyers at Sherman & Howard did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Nor did the EEOC.

During Ramadan, Muslims fast during the day and pray more frequently than usual. JBS says it was not required to provide additional breaks to its Muslim employees because doing so would have created undue burdens on its business, including slower production lines, safety issues, and lowering morale among non-Muslim workers.

The EEOC maintained that those concerns were speculative, and that JBS was required to make individualized assessments before disciplining workers. Instead, the agency said, JBS treated all of its Somali Muslim employees "monolithically" even though a small number were accused of antagonizing coworkers or other behavior warranting discipline.

In August 2017, days before the beginning of a 16-day bench trial, U.S. District Judge Philip Brimmer in Denver blocked JBS from arguing that it was justified in firing the workers because their prayer breaks slowed down production lines.

Brimmer said that because JBS had destroyed timekeeping records, the agency could not rebut the company's claim that allowing Muslim employees extra time to pray caused slowdowns or work stoppages.

After the trial, Brimmer dismissed the EEOC's claims that the workers' firing amounted to an unlawful "pattern or practice" of discriminatory conduct. Last August, Brimmer largely denied JBS' motion to dismiss the remaining discrimination claims.

In addition to the $5.5 million payout, JBS in Friday's consent decree agreed to review and overhaul its anti-discrimination policies. That includes adopting a "clear and simple definition of religious accommodation" and training managers in handling requests for accommodations.

JBS also said it would not require individual workers to keep the settlement terms confidential, waive their statutory rights or refrain from applying to work for JBS in the future in order to participate in the settlement.

The case is EEOC v. JBS USA LLC, U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado, No. 10-cv-02103.

For the EEOC: Michael Imdieke, Justin Mulaire and Karl Tetzlaff

For JBS: Heather Fox Vickles and Kelly Robinson of Sherman & Howard

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