Muslims Turn More Often to EEOC to Resolve Workplace Discrimination

By Judy Greenwald

Oct. 13, 2010

Discrimination claims filed by Muslims with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission were increasing before controversy erupted over a planned Islamic community center blocks from New York’s ground zero.

The number of claims more than doubled to 1,490 in fiscal 2009, which ended Sept. 30, from 697 in fiscal 2004, according to the agency. These claims resulted in 803 EEOC charges, which can include more than one claim.

Of the 10,005 claims concerning discrimination against Muslims in the past 10 years, the most frequent was discharge (2,722), followed by harassment (1,861) and terms and conditions of employment (1,419).

Of the 803 charges filed in fiscal 2009, the most were filed in Georgia (142), followed by Minnesota (64), and California and Colorado (58 each).

The charges filed by Muslims also outweighed those filed by individuals of other identified religious groups.

The EEOC has been actively pursuing cases in which Muslims are discriminated against since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, says Mary Jo O’Neill, regional attorney for the EEOC’s Phoenix District Office.

“These are communities that we have done outreach forever since 9/11,” O’Neill says. “We worried about a backlash after the tragedy of 9/11, and we’ve continued our relationship with the community to make sure they know” there are resources available if its members experience discrimination.

The cases include two lawsuits filed Aug. 31 by the EEOC against Greeley, Colorado-based meat-packing company JBS Swift & Co., which charged the company with creating a hostile work environment for its Somali and Muslim employees and with engaging in religious discrimination when it failed to reasonably accommodate Muslim employees by refusing to allow them to pray according to their religious beliefs.

The EEOC also accused Swift of retaliation against the workers by terminating their employment when they asked that their evening break be moved so they could pray at sundown during Ramadan—the Islamic holy month that requires daily fasting from sunrise to sunset—and break their fast. A Swift representative could not be reached for comment.

Also in August, the EEOC and Electrolux Group settled a discrimination charge by a Muslim production employee at the appliance manufacturer’s St. Cloud, Minnesota, plant concerning breaking the Ramadan fast. The issue arose as a result of a new Electrolux health and safety policy that prohibits food in production areas of the plant.

Electrolux agreed to further modify its break time schedule during Ramadan so Muslim employees could pray and break their fasts after sundown safely outside the production area, according to the EEOC.

In a written statement, Electrolux St. Cloud plant manager John Valence said the adjustment “accommodates the needs of our Muslim employees without compromising an important health and safety policy.”

Another contentious subject has been the hijab, the headscarf worn by Muslim women. In September, the EEOC filed a workplace discrimination lawsuit against New Albany, Ohio-based clothing manufacturer Abercrombie & Fitch Co., alleging it had violated federal law when it refused to hire a Muslim applicant for a job stocking merchandise because she wore a hijab. The EEOC filed a lawsuit about the same issue in September 2009. 

 A company representative could not be reached.

In a highly publicized case, a Muslim employee in Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel & Spa in Anaheim, California, filed a religious discrimination claim in August against Walt Disney Co. with the EEOC after it sent her home for refusing to take off her hijab while she worked as a hostess at one of the hotel’s restaurants. Imane Boudlal, 26, of Anaheim, was told that the hijab did not comply with the “Disney look,” according to a written statement by her union, New York-based Unite Here.

A Disney representative could not be reached for comment.

Workforce Management Online, October 2010Register Now!

Judy Greenwald writes for Business Insurance, a sister publication of Workforce Management.

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