MOORHEAD, Minn. — Eleven workers of a Moorhead food preparation business say they were fired after approaching management about being overworked and underpaid, and now they've made accusations of religious discrimination.
The 11 former employees, who are all Somali refugees and Muslim, worked at Salad Makers Inc. in Moorhead. They told Forum News Service they worked six days a week, between 10 and 13 hours a day, never received overtime pay, and were not allowed to take breaks for prayers, as mandated by their beliefs.
Tom Jacobson, owner of Salad Makers, denied the allegations, saying all his employees can punch out to take breaks, that his company does pay overtime and that it honors all religious practices.
The fired workers' time on the job ranged from one to seven years. Two supervisors were included in the mass firing, Tuesday, Sept. 8, which came as a surprise to them all.
“We were just trying to talk to our boss,” said Saber Ali, speaking through translator Cani Adan, a member of the Moorhead Human Rights Commission. Ali said she was being paid about $10.50 an hour. “We work there, even with no rights, we knew our rights were being violated, but many of us don’t speak English. We all kept silent, but after 18 years in the U.S.A., I’ve never seen something like this before.”
Adan said he plans to bring up the issue at the next Human Rights Commission meeting on Wednesday, Sept. 16. He said he will also help the former Salad Makers employees file complaints with the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry. He said not allowing time for prayers is religious discrimination.
On Friday, Sept. 11, Adan said he was serving as a mediator in negotiations with Jacobson. "Unless something is fixed, they won't go back," Adan said.
Jacobson confirmed that negotiations were underway. “We’re going to come to terms and make this thing work," the owner said. "I hope we can make it amicable for everybody. That’s our intent."
“We pay after eight hours a day overtime, and there are days they may work 10-hour days, 12-hour days, but they’re given unlimited numbers of breaks and overtime after eight," Jacobson said. “We honor all religious beliefs, and they’re allowed to punch out to take a break any time they want for prayer, rest, whatever. There are no restrictions on breaks. And those are things we are going to work out.”
Jacobson declined to answer further questions with the negotiations still pending.
According to the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, "An employer has a duty to accommodate an employee's need for prayer breaks, unless it would cause an unreasonable burden."
Prayer five times a day is “one of the highest pillars of Islam,” said Sefin Zeki, a member of the Islamic Society of Fargo and Moorhead, noting there is no forgiveness for breaking the rules, although “you can try to make it up, but it’s better to make it on time."
The Minnesota Fair Labor Standards Act requires employers to pay overtime for all hours worked in excess of 48 per workweek, unless the employee is specifically exempt, according to the state Department of Labor and Industry. The federal Fair Labor Standards Act requires some employers to pay overtime for all hours worked in excess of 40 per workweek.
Jacobson, a former music teacher, bought the business in 1999 after the company’s former owner won the Minnesota lottery, according to newspaper archives. The company delivers cut produce and other goods such as hamburger toppers, grilling vegetables, fruit bowls and salads to grocery stores and other places.
On Tuesday, Sept. 8, the former workers were fed up and approached management with their concerns.
“While we were talking to the manager, he just went and opened the door and told us all to leave, just like dogs,” said Mohamed Mohamed, a former supervisor. “And then a manager started shouting, ‘We will work, let them leave,’ and everyone was happy for us to leave.”
Mohamed said he was in charge of tracking all orders, running three different machines and supervising employees.
“He gave me three jobs and I said it was too much for me, but he said I had to do it,” Mohamed said. “At least we expected him to listen to his supervisors, but he won’t, so what can we do then?”
Sadio Isak broke her hand while working at Salad Makers, she said. Isak and her co-workers worked from 7 a.m. until sometimes 10 p.m., with only a 30-minute break for lunch, which they had to clock out for, she said. They were also told to work six days a week, with Sundays off, Isak said.
“If we work 12 hours, why don’t we have rights for a 15-minute break?” Isak said.
“When the coronavirus pandemic started, the company stayed open. We were expecting at least a thank you or something, but instead, he did this to us,” said Halimo Abdi, a supervisor, who worked at Salad Makers for five years.
Family members employed by the company were spying on them, she said, and they were reported any time they tried to clock out for a short break. As Muslims, they’re supposed to pray five times a day, Abdi said, but they were not given the time.
“When we addressed the breaks, he just opened the door and shouted, ‘Out, everyone out,’” Abdi said. “No papers, just opened the door just like we were animals and kicked us out.”
Mohamed said everyone was later threatened not to apply for unemployment benefits and that they would not find another job in the area.
“He just made a threat that he will do whatever he wants,” Mohamed said. “He used to listen to us, but not anymore.”
Aside from being unable to take breaks to warm up as the temperature in the workplace is set to freezing, the floors are slippery, and one woman slipped and broke her leg, Mohamed said.
“The floor is always slippery. I’ve fallen down many times,” said Halima Ise, a former employee. “Sometimes we are working with knives, and if we cut ourselves we are told to just wrap it up, and no hospital.”
“All of us now are unemployed. He said we cannot apply for unemployment and that he will not provide proof of being fired. We all have bills to pay, and some have kids, and they’re threatening us that we will not get unemployment and we will not get another job,” Mohamed said.
Mohamed said he plans on filing a lawsuit. “We feel discriminated against,” he said.