OMAHA, Neb. A Grand Island meatpacking plant fired at least 86 workers Friday after they walked off the job amid a dispute over prayers during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, company officials said.
But a Muslim leader and one of the fired workers said 150 Muslims lost their jobs.
JBS Swift & Co. spokeswoman Tamara Smid confirmed 86 firings late Friday, saying the employees were terminated earlier that day for repeatedly leaving work without authorization. She would not give any other details, including whether anyone else had been fired.
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 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.
Muslim workers mostly of Somali background 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.
One of the Somali workers, Mohamed Farah, said some workers tried to take a break to pray Thursday around sunset. The break had been arranged with managers, Farah said, with Rage translating the conversation.
Farah said tension had been building in recent days with Latino workers, who started protesting when they saw the Muslim workers leaving for break. Farah said the Latino workers started shouting and beating on their tables.
Two women, one 19 and another in her 40s, and a 20-year-old man fainted during the commotion because they had gone so long without food, Farah said. During Ramadan, Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset.
Dan Hoppes, president of Local 22 of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, described what happened Thursday night differently than Rage and Farah 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.
The plant employs about 2,500 people, not counting management. About a fifth of them are Muslim.
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.
Hoppes couldn't confirm the total number of workers affected Friday, but said he knew human resources representatives were posted at employee entrances to address workers.
"We don't have any clear cut information as to numbers or why they were terminated," he said.
On Monday, hundreds of Muslim employees walked off the job, 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 could make their fourth of five daily prayers at sunset.
Hoppes said most Muslim employees did not work Monday or Tuesday.
Then hundreds of non-Muslim workers walked off the job in counterprotests Wednesday and Thursday. Later Thursday, plant managers did an about-face, saying the new break times weren't working.
Swift said in a statement that the company 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."