Cargill will change its employee hiring policy — allowing workers to be potentially rehired 30 days after termination, not 180 days — in response to a walkout by Somali workers at a Colorado beef plant.

After a dispute over Muslim prayer time, about 150 employees at Cargill’s sprawling Fort Morgan, Colo., plant didn’t show up for work for three days — grounds for termination. Some workers claimed they weren’t allowed to take prayer breaks, while Cargill claimed that it was still following its policy allowing workers the breaks.

Cargill said in statement Friday that it will change the hiring policy at all of its North American beef plants. The change would allow former employees terminated for “attendance violation or job abandonment to be considered for rehiring 30 days after their termination date.” The fired workers would have to reapply for their jobs.

After the prayer dispute flared up on Dec. 18, Cargill said 10 Somali workers resigned and 180 didn’t call in or show up for the first three days of the following week. Cargill spokesman Mike Martin said Friday that the number of workers actually terminated was 150, and that the remaining 30 workers had called in sick or were on leave or vacation, given them valid reasons for not being at work.

“We believe the change in our beef business policy related to how quickly a former employee may be eligible to reapply for positions at our beef plants is a reasonable update to something that’s been in place for quite a few years,” Cargill Beef President John Keating said in a statement. “The terminations at Fort Morgan appear to be based on a misunderstanding, or misinformation, about a perceived change in our religious accommodation policy that did not occur.”

Cargill is one of North America’s largest beef producers, operating four major plants, including the one in Fort Morgan. The plants produce boxed beef, including slaughtering cattle. The Fort Morgan plant alone employs 2,100 people.

Since the terminations, it’s been “challenging” to run the Fort Morgan plant at full speed, Martin said. “We’re operating at significantly reduced capacity on the second shift.” The walkout occurred among second shift workers.

While Cargill has hired some people since the walkout, the labor pool isn’t large in Fort Morgan, a town of about 12,000 people.

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(c)2016 the Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

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