HR Basics, Legal Issues

Do We Have to Grant our Employee’s Religious-Accommodation Request?

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By Eric B. Meyer

An employer must accommodate the sincerely-held religious beliefs of its employees unless the employer demonstrates that doing so would cause undue hardship for the business.

Undue hardship?!? What the heck is that? And how can you make sure that your managers are prepared to address — let alone spot — these issues when they arise.

In June 2011, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission announced that it had sued a Rent-A-Center store in Washington, D.C. because Rent-A-Center had allegedly violated federal law when it failed to accommodate a store manager’s religious beliefs and then fired him because of his religion.

Asking for Saturdays off

Ferdinand Charles, a Seventh-Day Adventist, worked as a store manager for Rent-A-Center. The store manager is the highest ranking employee at a RAC store, and is charged with special supervisory, training, financial, customer service and managerial responsibilities. Many of these functions can only be performed by the store manager.

At a certain point, Mr. Charles decided to reaffirm and strictly practice his faith, which includes a religious tenet that he not work on his Sabbath, Saturday, before sundown. Saturday is the most important day of the week for RAC. Indeed, Saturdays are almost always the highest revenue-generating day of the week for RAC stores, and all RAC store employees work on Saturdays, including Store Managers.

RAC argued that the store “could not operate effectively on Saturdays” without Mr. Charles. Mr. Charles agreed that “the store could not effectively operate on Saturday without [him] if it was a busy day.”

Still, for months Charles did not work on Saturdays due to his religious beliefs. However, after the company realigned its store districts around December 2006, Charles was told that he would have to work on Saturdays. When Charles refused due to his religious beliefs, Rent-A-Center discharged him.

Will this accommodation result in undue hardship?

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 requires employers to make reasonable accommodations to sincerely-held religious beliefs of employees as long as doing so poses no undue hardship on the employer.

An employee who asserts a religious discrimination must first establish three elements:

  1. They held a bonafide religious belief conflicting with an employment requirement;
  2. They informed their employer of their belief; and,
  3. They were terminated for failure to comply with the conflicting employment requirement.

If the employee meets this initial burden, the burden shifts to the employer to show that it was unable reasonably to accommodate the plaintiff’s religious needs without undue hardship.

Proving undue hardship

Where leaving a shift empty will impair critical functions, that’s an undue hardship. If juggling employees to cover for an employee who needs a religious accommodation involves costs to the employer, either in the form of lost efficiency in other jobs or higher wages, that’s an undue hardship. An “undue hardship” may also come in the form of costs on other employees.

Here, three uncontested facts about RAC’s business led the Court to conclude that RAC had met its burden of proving undue hardship.

  • Saturdays are the most important day of the week in RAC stores.
  • The store manager position is the most important position in the store.
  • Rent-A-Center’s general policy is to require all store managers to work Saturdays.

Thus, the Court concluded that requiring RAC to “carve out an exception to its generally applicable scheduling policy and allow its most important employee at a particular store to be regularly absent on the most important day of the week at that store” would result in an undue burden on the store.

Case dismissed.

Takeaways for religious-accommodation requests

Here are your takeaways for address religious-accommodation requests in your workplace:

  • Have a religious-accommodation policy. This is SO often overlooked in employee handbooks. Make sure that employees know that if they have a sincerely-held religious belief that requires accommodation, they can seek one. In that policy, don’t attempt to delineate what may or may not qualify as sincerely-held religious belief. Rather, let employees know that they have the right to seek accommodation and let them know who to see about it.
  • Train your managers to address this issue. At the very least, they should be able to spot a religious accommodation issue when it arises — rather than dismiss it as subordinate to the needs of the business. Encourage them to consult with more experienced managers or human resources personnel when addressing difficult issues such as religious accommodation.
  • One size does NOT fit all. As a federal appellate court noted, reasonableness is a fact-specific determination:

The term “reasonable accommodation” is a relative term and cannot be given a hard and fast meaning. Each case involving such a determination necessarily depends upon its own facts and circumstances, and comes down to a determination of “reasonableness” under the unique circumstances of the individual employer-employee relationship.

So, don’t make snap decisions. Instead, conduct a thorough analysis. Determine and document the cost of making the accommodation and, if it results in more than a de minimis cost, you do not have to provide it.

This was originally published on Eric B. Meyer’s blog, The Employer Handbook.

Eric B. Meyer is a partner in the Labor and Employment Group of the Philadelphia-based law firm of Dilworth Paxson LLP . He dedicates his practice to litigating and assisting employers on labor and employment issues affecting the workplace, including collective bargaining, discrimination, employee handbook policies, enforcement of restrictive covenants, and trade secret protection. Eric also serves as a volunteer mediator for the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Contact him at emeyer@dilworthlaw.com .