Shamso Ali was about an hour into her shift at Dianne's Fine Desserts in Le Center Monday morning when she and the other Somali women on the day shift were told to either change their dress or leave the facility as part of a new dress code policy company officials say was implemented for safety.
Ali and the other 10 Somali women -- many from Faribault, Le Center and Mankato -- chose the latter. They were then joined by the 20 or so Somali men also working the day shift at the facility, which employs about 250 people.
"I could not believe it was happening," Ali said later Monday morning as she stood outside a prayer center in Faribault. "They asked, 'Will you go change your skirt?' I said, 'No I cannot.' 'Well then you need to leave,' they said."
Monday marked the first day of a new dress code that restricts dresses hanging below the knee at Dianne's Fine Desserts because of safety concerns.
Muslim women typically wear either a headscarf, called a hijab, or a head-to-foot, loose fitting burqa known as a jalabeeb. They are not allowed to show any skin beyond their face and front of their hands -- meaning the long dress is necessary.
"If you can see anywhere else, that's basically like she's showing off her body," said Abdul Abdilahi, one of the about 20 men who chose to leave the Le Center facility with the women. "They are asking our ladies to show a part of their body and we are saying they cannot do that. We cannot change our faith and our religion because of what they're asking us."
Local Dianne's Fine Desserts officials referred all questions about the incident to Mike Knowles, the new company owner as of three weeks ago. Because Knowles is based in an office in Massachusetts, he said he did not know all of the specifics of what happened Monday morning at the facility.
"What I know is that, quite frankly, we thought we had an understanding with everyone last week and something happened over the weekend," Knowles said. "This morning when the first shift came in some employees chose to not abide by the new rules."
While the group of Islamic workers say they believe the rule was changed as a way to "force them out" based on their religion, Knowles pointed to an incident two weeks ago when a woman's long dress got caught in a boot washer -- a floor machine that washes footwear and is required for plant sanitary guidelines.
According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission website, employer must reasonably accommodate a worker's religious beliefs or practices unless doing so would cause undue hardship -- including compromising workplace safety.
Calls to the EEOC office for further comment were not returned by deadline.
Despite there being no injuries -- nearby employees were able to help the woman get unstuck -- Knowles said the local management team decided something needed to be done to prevent any further incidents.
"When there's a safety incident like that you can't just ignore it," he said. "We thought we came to a reasonable solution. We addressed the safety issue by saying no skirts below the knee but that workers could wear slacks or pants and tuck them into their boots."
But the skirts ordered by the company, in the eyes of the Somali employees, are far too short.
"The skirts they are showing are extremely high, they are way up there," said Asher Ali, leader of the Somali Community Center in Faribault. "It's like something a model would wear. It's just too much."
Knowles said the workers were also given the option to wear slacks or leggings under their knee-length skirts.
Asher Ali said he planned to act as a mediator between the company and the workers.
"I want to help the people understand each other," he said Monday afternoon.
In the mean time, a night shift including more than 30 Somalis is expected to arrive at the plant by 7 p.m. Monday. Knowles would not comment on the employment status of the 30 workers who left mid-shift Monday morning except to say the incident left the facility leaders scrambling.
"People can't just walk off the job," he said. "We want to run that facility but we need employees to help run it. We have raw ingredients on the floor, orders needing to be shipped, and they are down there trying to keep things together right now."
Fartun Husein, another worker who had to leave her shift at the facility because of her dress, said she was anxious to get back to work.
"We are here to work hard. Our clothes don't work for the company, we are the ones working hard every day to produce for them. You cannot just treat people this way," she said. "We want to go back. We want to work but we cannot because, you know."
Reach Rebecca Rodenborg at 333-3128 or follow her on Twitter.com @FDNRebecca