U.S. Supreme Court Strengthens Employee Rights to Religious Accommodations at Work
In Groff v. DeJoy, the U.S. Supreme Court has declared an employer covered by The 1964 Civil Rights Act must provide a reasonable religious accommodation to an employee, unless it would cause an "undue hardship" that equals a substantial additional burden on the entire operation. This substantial burden standard can include a cost as well as operational hardship and otherwise. Groff v. DeJoy, Slip Op. No. 22-174, 600 U.S. 447 (June 29, 2023) (Draft Pagination).
The decision overrules prior interpretations from U.S. Supreme Court precedent that have permitted an employer to reject religious accommodation requests if burdened more than de minimus.
In other words, an employer now will need to show the burden is substantial or greater, rather than merely above the minimum. An employee can show their religious accommodation is "reasonable" if the undue hardship does not create a substantial burden on the employer, conversely.
Groff v. DeJoy involves a rather common situation: A Christian employee did not want to work on his Sunday Sabbath, because for that employee, it's a day for religious activity among family and the community, not commerce. The postal worker involved here had the accommodation for several years, but in the last few years, the U.S. Post Office (USPS) began delivering Amazon packages on Sundays. Soon enough, he was asked to labor on Sunday.
The postal worker apparently refused. So he was written up for it, until he resigned, but then sued for being denied the religious accommodation.
The Court did not address the entire case, but just the standard USPS must meet to lawfully deny this request for Sabbath off.
Applying this legal standard is both fact-specific, and includes considering the "nature, size and operating cost of [an] employer." Slip Op. 600 U.S. at 470-471.
Citing to EEOC regulations, at 29 CFR § 1605.2(d), the Court notes that an undue hardship does not include "temporary costs, voluntary shift swapping, occasional shift swapping, or administrative costs."
While the Court did not apply the standard here, if applied, the "size" of the employer, USPS, indicates it could have other postal-workers carry Sunday packages among hundreds of regional employees. This said, if the postal worker was in a major city with hundreds of colleagues, this impacts the analysis compared to what can happen in an isolated rural region.
The "administrative cost" of shift scheduling should not be considered. If some co-worker wished to handle it on Sunday, then this voluntary gesture should not be rejected, because it is "voluntary shift swapping" and declared not an undue hardship by the EEOC. This all said, economic, staffing, and practical considerations must be evaluated to assess the legality of a religious accommodation request.
The Supreme Court leaves the matter to case specific analysis. The Court does clarify that only "substantial burdens" justify denying a religious accommodation request. Slip Op. at 600 U.S. 468. So if hiring a fill-in costs the employer more or a "premium," this alone is unlikely to meet this case's substantial burden standard (of the "undue hardship" test), based on EEOC regulations that the Court discusses favorably. So if the cost is above premium, well, this may be a bridge impossible to cross. Slip Op. at 600 U.S. at 466.
If there is an established seniority system or rigid union rules in place, then if the religious accommodation request contradicts it, this may be a closer call. Id. If the employer must incur "substantial cost," this likely justifies denying the request. Slip Op. at 600 U.S. at 467.
It is important to note, though this case does not discuss it, the religious accommodation request is helped if as reasonable as possible in the context of the religious need and workplace. As Ben Franklin, and others before him, said, "God helps those who help themselves." In other words, the more reasonable the request in the context at hand, the likely easier to accommodate, and likely less to be an undue hardship.
To give a final example, if someone needs a specific religious holiday off, the employee providing three months compared to three days of advanced notice to the employer can affect the analysis of whether the request causes a undue hardship.
In sum in Groff v. DeJoy, the U.S. Supreme Court has expanded reasonable religious accommodation rights, which is analyzed workplace by workplace, and must be granted unless it causes a substantial burden on the employer.
Gregg H. Mosson, Esq.
Mosson Law, LLC
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