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Synopsis of Seyfarth: Accommodation requests continue to vex employers who attempt to balance an employee’s religious beliefs with the general needs of business operations. But try, they must.
Notwithstanding Yoda’s mangled quote above, as more employees return to in-person work, it’s important to remember an employer’s obligations to accommodate their employees. Foremost among them: accommodations for religious beliefs. The recent Third Circuit opinion in Groff v. DeJoy provides detailed insight into an employer’s duty to attempt to accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs. Plaintiff Gerald E. Groff was a United States Postal Service (“USPS”) postal worker and was scheduled to work Sundays. The USPS had entered into a contract with Amazon, which required Sunday package delivery, and the success of Sunday delivery was critical to the USPS. After Groff alerted the USPS that he could not work Sundays in accordance with his religious beliefs, the USPS attempted to accommodate Groff by allowing him to voluntarily switch shifts. Although his supervisor undertook time-consuming efforts to find coverage, there were still a number of Sundays when Groff’s shift was not covered, impacting service standards. [??], and which brought progressive discipline to Groff. Ultimately, other USPS employees were forced to carry the burden of Groff’s Sunday shift due to increased workload and assignment to Sunday shifts. This impacted productivity and morale and created resentment among employees who were forced to take over. Although Groff requested accommodation that completely excused him from Sunday work, there was no other position to which Groff could be transferred that did not require Sunday work. After being disciplined for refusing to work, Groff quit. He filed a lawsuit alleging disparate treatment and a failure to accommodate his religious beliefs.
The Third Circuit ultimately upheld the granting of summary judgment in favor of the USPS, finding that accommodating Groff by excusing him from Sunday work created an undue burden by increasing the workload of his colleagues. , disrupting the workplace and workflow and lowering employee morale. Important takeaways from the decision for employers include:
A successful accommodation must eliminate the conflict between job requirements and religious practices.
Reasonable accommodation in good faith goes beyond a neutral attitude toward religious and non-religious accommodation requests from employees. Instead, the employer has a positive obligation to attempt to eliminate the conflict between job requirements and religious practices. This means that the employer must proactively modify its conduct to allow the employee to maintain full religious practice. Simply put, a home that in theory eliminate this conflict is not enough.
While swapping shifts may otherwise be considered a reasonable accommodation to allow an employee to observe the Sabbath, the Third Circuit found here that it was not reasonable because the USPS did not been able to find cover for Graff at least two dozen times. In other words, because the conflict between his request to take time off work and the need for daily delivery was not eliminated, the accommodation failed.
Reasonableness is considered on a case-by-case basis
There is no perfect answer to ascertaining the reasonableness of accommodation for the employee’s sincere religious belief. Indeed, eliminating the conflict does not necessarily mean that the accommodation is reasonable. However, attempting to eliminate this conflict is a minimum threshold in the analysis of reasonableness.
There is no failure to provide religious accommodation if employers can show undue hardship
Examples of undue hardship are case specific and require showing more than one de minimis cost to the employer and his business. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, in particular, states that there must be evidence that the accommodation would cause disruption in the workplace or adversely affect the rights of other employees. Groff demonstrates that such workplace disruptions and negative impacts on workplace morale may be sufficient evidence to demonstrate undue hardship.
What constitutes undue hardship? These negative costs can be both economic and non-economic, such as:
- The tedious process of finding coverage;
- Increase the workload of other employees;
- Pay overtime to provide coverage;
- Create a tense atmosphere among the remaining employees;
- Resulting morale issues among remaining employees; and
- Provide an exemption that might otherwise violate state law.
Requests for religious accommodations aren’t new, but they’ve also become more frequent with the CDC’s continued recommendation of COVID-19 vaccines. Thus, it is important to consider the main points of the Groff decision and interact thoughtfully and create accommodations for employees (and applied consistently to all employees). When accommodations cannot be made, the employee must be informed and these reasons must be documented at the same time.
*Rachel Duboff is a Senior Fellow at the firm and the other authors thank her for her help in writing this article.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide on the subject. Specialist advice should be sought regarding your particular situation.
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