HR Hotline: When Must an Employer Accommodate an Employee’s Religious Practices?
Q: Our company recently increased its operations schedule, so we’re now operating seven days per week. As a result, we require our employees to work some weekends, on a rotating schedule.
One of our workers refuses to work Sundays, when they observe the Christian Sabbath. Are we required to give Sundays off, even if that means the accommodation may disadvantage the co-workers who cover the shift?
A: Yes, you may be required to provide this religious accommodation, but it depends on very specific circumstances, as described below.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, a federal non-discrimination statute that applies to employers with 15 or more employees, prohibits employers from discriminating against individuals based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.
Unlawful discrimination can take many forms, including wrongful termination, unfair compensation, and harassment, to name a few.
When it comes to religious discrimination, employers may also be liable for unlawful conduct when they refuse to accommodate the religious practices of their employees, unless doing so would impose “an undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.”
Until recently, many courts interpreted this “undue hardship” language to mean that employers need not accommodate an employee’s religious practices if the accommodation would require more than a bare minimum of cost or effort.
Supreme Court Ruling
At the height of the COVID pandemic, many employers relied on this legal interpretation when evaluating employee requests to be exempted from vaccine mandates on religious grounds.
However, on June 29, 2023, the United States Supreme Court clarified this rule, holding that an employer may only deny such an accommodation if it can show that the burden of granting it would result in “substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of its particular business.”
Although the court declined to identify a specific financial cost that would qualify as “substantial,” it explained that an employer must evaluate the impact of each requested accommodation in light of the company’s nature, size, and operating costs.
With respect to your employee who has requested an exemption from Sunday work on religious grounds, the company may refuse this accommodation only if it would cause substantial increased costs in the way you conduct business.
For example, if the only way you can accommodate the request is by depriving co-workers of seniority rights or by making significant financial outlays, such an accommodation is likely unreasonable.
If, on the other hand, you can satisfy the accommodation request with reassignments or schedule changes, temporary incentive pay for substitute workers, or voluntary shift swapping, the impact on your business will not likely be substantial enough to deny the request.
The Supreme Court specifically noted that diminished employee morale and imposition on co-workers will not necessarily rise to the level of “undue hardship” that would justify the denial of a request.
As with other accommodation requests, such as those based on disability (and thus evaluated under the Americans with Disabilities Act), employers must analyze each request individually, and consider alternatives that may accomplish the employee’s goal while protecting the employer from undue hardship.
Connecticut employers in particular should also be mindful that, while Title VII only applies to employers with 15 or more employees, Connecticut’s anti-discrimination law—which typically tracks federal case law—applies to employers with just one employee.
Consult with a trusted employment attorney for specific guidance as requests come in.
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