Religious Accommodations Update: What Manufacturers Need To Know
Religious accommodation claims continue to confront employers in the manufacturing sector and elsewhere. To recap, when an employee requests that an employer make an adjustment or exception to a workplace rule or policy to accommodate the employee’s asserted religious beliefs, the employer must analyze, among other things, whether an accommodation is reasonable and whether the proposed accommodation would impose an undue hardship (which, in this context, means that it would impose more than a “de minimis” difficulty or expense on the employer). As discussed below, guessing wrong or refusing to explore potential religious accommodations can be costly.
The Eleventh Circuit is set to decide Staple v. Broward County, a case involving whether or not an employer can be liable for violating its religious accommodation obligations even though the employee was not disciplined or terminated as a result of his accommodation requests, but was required to use his paid time off in order to avoid having to work on his Sabbath.
The Third Circuit in Groff v. DeJoy recently addressed a common work scheduling accommodation request in which an employee informed his employer that he could not work during his Sunday Sabbath due to his religious beliefs, even though the employer had a contract requiring operations on Sundays. Although the employer argued that it had offered a reasonable accommodation when it allowed him to swap Sunday shifts with co-workers, the Third Circuit found this did not eliminate the conflict between the employee’s religious beliefs and the Sunday work requirement because the employee was still expected to work on Sundays when he could not find a co-worker to cover for him. The Third Circuit did not decide what the employer was required to do to resolve this conflict, but it did hold that the employee’s proposed accommodation of being exempted from Sunday work would cause an undue hardship on co-workers, workflow, and morale.
An example of how religious accommodation violations can result in significant penalties occurred when the EEOC obtained a consent decree requiring an employer to pay $180,000, institute a new uniform policy, and provide employee training. There, the employer was accused of ignoring two workers’ requests for religious accommodation from being required to wear uniforms with a multicolored rainbow logo with the word “promise” on it. The employer argued that the logo was a promise to customers and not an LGBTQ rainbow flag, but the employees said that the logo violated their religious beliefs against supporting homosexuality. The court denied the employer’s motion for summary judgment and the employer then entered into a consent decree with the EEOC.
One takeaway is that employers must be prepared to explore making exceptions and exemptions to facially neutral workplace rules and policies when requested to do so to accommodate an employee’s sincerely held religious beliefs.
A final note: The Third Circuit’s decision in Groff v. DeJoy (see above) is up for review by the U.S. Supreme Court. Three Justices have already indicated that they would like to revisit the undue hardship standard in religious accommodation cases. It only takes four Justices to agree for the Supreme Court to accept a case for review, so stay tuned for further changes in the law on religious accommodations.
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