OMAHA, Neb. — About 150 Muslims were fired from a Grand Island, Neb., meatpacking plant that has been embroiled in a prayer dispute, a Somali-American leader said Friday.
Mohamed Rage, who leads the Omaha Somali-American Community Organization, said 80 workers were thrown out after an altercation late Thursday. He says when they tried to return for their shift Friday, they were fired, along with 70 others.
Police said were called to the plant late Thursday amid reports of a riot or serious fight. But when officers arrived, the situation had calmed, said police Chief Steve Lamken. Officers were also stationed outside the plant Friday as a precaution.
Muslim workers have been asking for accommodations with break times to allow prayer at sunset. The issue led to walkouts this week — not only from Muslims but from non-Muslims who protested such accommodations as preferential treatment.
JBS Swift & Co. officials have not returned repeated calls seeking comment. Officials did not refer to any terminations in a statement released Friday, but said problems at the plant were over people walking off the job without proper authorization, not about religion.
The company said employees can practice their religion so long as they don't violate their contract or disrupt operations.
Dan Hoppes, president of Local 22 of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, described what happened Thursday night differently than Rage did. He said that according to management and employees, 60 to 80 people quit late Thursday after raising the prayer issue and creating a commotion.
Hoppes said supervisors had told the workers to go back to work or leave and they left. Workers who walked off the job Monday and Tuesday in protest had to have known their leaving again would result in their termination, he said. They work on a point system, and enough absences or other contract violations result in firing.
The plant employs about 2,500 people, not counting management. About a fifth of them are Muslim, mostly of Somali background.
Hoppes said he didn't know what happened Friday, but that human resources representatives were posted at employee entrances to talk to workers.
"We don't have any clear cut information as to numbers or why they were terminated," he said.
Hundreds of Muslim employees walked off the job Monday and Tuesday, saying they weren't being allowed to take a break to pray during Ramadan. Break times were then altered on the second shift so the Muslim employees, mostly Somali, could make their fourth of five daily prayers at sunset.
Then hundreds of non-Muslim workers walked off the job in counterprotests Wednesday and Thursday morning. Later Thursday, plant managers did an about-face, saying the new break times weren't working.
Tensions have also flared elsewhere, including Swift's plant in Greeley, Colo. More than 100 workers there were fired last week because the company said they walked away from work before their shifts ended.
The company said in its statement that it is working to resolve the issues that have arisen.
"JBS values its diverse workforce and has a long track record of making significant accommodations to employees," the statement said. "We work closely with all employees and union representation to accommodate religious practices in a reasonable, safe and fair manner."
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