OMAHA, Neb. -
Meatpacking plant officials accused of discriminating against dozens of Somali Muslim workers have offered to tweak break times to help accommodate the workers' prayer demands.
If the dozens of Muslim workers and Swift & Co. can agree on details, a resolution could defuse the dispute that started earlier this year when 120 workers at the Grand Island plant abruptly quit because they weren't allowed to pray at sunset.
Many say they were fired, quit or were verbally and physically harassed over the issue, and some have complained to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission about the way they were treated.
In a letter to lawyers representing the workers, Swift said it could eliminate some break-time conflicts, and it offered to negotiate more scheduling flexibility with the union to allow more prayer time if the workers agreed to the proposal.
Advocates for the workers said Thursday that they were encouraged by the proposal, but that they would not accept a proposal that failed to accommodate the prayers for the whole year.
"We'll continue negotiations with the company and hopefully we'll come out with a solution that everybody can deal with," said Rima Kapitan, a lawyer for the Council on American-Islamic Relations who is representing the workers in the dispute.
The five- to 10-minute prayer, known as the maghrib, must be done within a 45-minute window around sunset, according to Muslim rules.
Tensions at the plant flared in May when 120 Somali workers abruptly quit over the issue. About 70 returned a week later, but the prayer dispute resurfaced through the late spring as sunset came later in the evening shift.
Swift spokesman Dan Schult said Thursday the negotiations were ongoing and declined to comment further.
But a lawyer for Swift said in a letter it would be possible to make prayer accommodations for most of the year. The Council on American-Islamic Relations provided a copy of the letter to The Associated Press.
"Swift concludes that it can potentially accommodate the maghrib prayer under the existing labor agreement, except on the following dates: Feb. 15 through March 8 (commencement of Daylight Savings Time), and May 23 through Aug. 1," Swift attorney Donald Selzer wrote in the letter dated Aug. 20.
The company also offered to go to union representatives to negotiate lengthening the dinner break window if the workers agreed to the proposal. Lengthening the window would mean fewer days when prayers could not be accommodated, Swift said.
But the president of the local United Food and Commercial Workers Union said Thursday that changing the breaks might not be feasible for other workers in the plant.
"I don't know that I can agree to that because I have 1,700 other people to worry about," said Dan Hoppes, Local 22 union president. "I have to look and see what they've got in mind."
Any changes could be a problem for other workers because supervisors at the plant determine breaks within allotted times, not the workers themselves. And breaks are required to be uniform for each employee.
EEOC spokesman David Grinberg said religious discrimination cases make up a small percentage of the agency's total cases but are growing faster than other kinds of cases.
Additionally, yearly complaints from Muslims have doubled in the last 10 years, from 221 in 1996 to 594 in 2006, Grinberg said.