News & Insights
For more than forty years, an employer has been able to reject an employee’s request for reasonable accommodations on the basis of religion by showing that accommodating the employee would create an undue hardship, defined as a de minimis cost to the employer. Under this standard, established in Trans World Airlines v. Hardison, almost any cost to the employer- no matter how small- was sufficient grounds to reject a religious accommodation.
A recent Supreme Court decision, however, has modified what constitutes an undue hardship sufficient for employers to deny an accommodation on religious grounds. As a result, employers should carefully evaluate their policies surrounding religious accommodations to ensure their policies align with this latest Court ruling.
Groff v. DeJoy
In Groff v. DeJoy, a United States Postal Service (USPS) worker requested that he not be assigned work shifts on Sundays because he observed a Sunday Sabbath. Gerald Groff’s branch of the USPS did not require Sunday shifts when he was hired, but when his branch of the USPS contracted with Amazon to deliver packages seven days a week, Sunday became a working day for the branch’s employees. Groff transferred to another branch to avoid Sunday shifts. But that branch soon also added Sunday as a working day, and Groff requested as an accommodation that he not be assigned Sunday shifts. The USPS rejected Groff’s request, determining that not scheduling Groff on Sundays created an undue hardship. Under the standard laid out in Hardison, USPS needed only to show a de minimis cost to its business operations to establish the existence of an undue hardship. The district court and Third Circuit Court of Appeals determined that the de minimis standard was met because of the added burden imposed on Groff’s coworkers, the disruption to the workplace flow, and diminished employee morale.
But the Supreme Court held that a request for a religious accommodation must be evaluated under the same undue hardship standard as requests for accommodation based on an employee’s disability. Under this standard, an undue hardship must constitute “substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of its particular business,” a substantially more stringent standard than showing a de minimis cost. With the Court’s ruling, meeting the standard for an undue hardship depends on the “relevant factors of the case at hand, including the particular accommodations at issue and their practical impact.” More than forty years after its decision in Hardison, the Court is imposing a higher standard on employers faced with requests for religious accommodations.
The Court’s ruling does not mandate that employers allow employees to not work on the Sabbath. Instead, it requires that employers engage in an interactive process with employees to determine whether a reasonable accommodation—either one suggested by the employee or an alternate accommodation—is possible without imposing an undue hardship on the business. With a showing that an employee not working on a Sabbath day would result in substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of the business, employers will still be permitted to deny a worker’s request to not work on the Sabbath day and to grant an alternative accommodation, or no accommodation at all, as appropriate under the new standard.
The Ruling’s Impact
With the Court’s ruling, there are at least two practical changes for employers assessing whether to grant a religious accommodation to an employee. First, employers now need to consider whether any reasonable accommodation can be made for an employee’s religious beliefs. This is a change from the standard set out in Hardison, which required only that an employer show that the specifically requested accommodation created at least a de minimis cost. The ruling in Groff requires employers to engage in an interactive process with employees to determine whether an accommodation can be agreed upon, even if that accommodation is different to the one suggested by the employee.
Second, the Court reduced the weight employers can give to the impact of a religious accommodation on an employee’s coworkers in determining whether an accommodation imposes an undue hardship. The simple fact that coworkers are affected, and any resulting angst, will not be sufficient to show an undue hardship absent an affect on the conduct of the business. Hardship to an employee’s coworkers can only be considered insofar as it also affects the conduct of the business, and employers must establish a nexus between the accommodation’s impact on coworkers and the conduct of the business.
Employers should be mindful that the ruling applies to any religious belief, defined as any “sincerely held” belief, and not only to adherents of mainstream religions. Thus, an employee must be granted an accommodation that does not constitute an undue hardship, even if he or she is not a member of an organized religion or does not appear to regularly practice the tenets of a widely known faith.
Next Steps for Employers
Employers should evaluate their current policies to ensure that all requests for religious accommodation are considered using the heightened standard for showing undue hardship and consider whether any modifications are necessary in light of the Court’s ruling. This should include a review of previous requests for religious accommodation.
Each new request for religious accommodation should include a consideration of any available accommodation that does not pose an undue hardship, and not be limited to evaluating the employee’s proposed accommodation. If an accommodation’s negative impact on coworkers factors into the decision to not grant an accommodation, employers must be prepared to show that the impact extends to the conduct of the business.
Employers should contact experienced employment law counsel as they consider the impact of the Court’s ruling on requests for religious accommodation. Our employment law team at Tuggle Duggins can help ensure your policies are up-to-date and comply with state and federal guidelines.
For more information, please contact Denis Jacobson at DJacobson@tuggleduggins.com or 336-271-5245, Ross Hamilton at RHamilton@tuggleduggins.com or 336-271-5279 or Shauna Baker-Karl at SBakerfirstname.lastname@example.org or 336-271-5249.
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