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Oct 2006
19
October 19, 2006

Addressing Religious Accommodation Issues

Most employers know that not only are they prohibited under state and federal law from discriminating against employees or applicants because of their religion, but that they must also reasonably accommodate an individual employee's religious beliefs. Because religious accommodation issues are encountered less frequently than other equal employment opportunity issues, many employers are unfamiliar with the types of accommodations required by the courts and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC"). As a result, claims of religious discrimination are on the rise and they are receiving increasing publicity. For example, in 2001, the EEOC received 330 charges of anti-Muslim discrimination. Already this year, there have been 565 such complaints.

In general, a reasonable accommodation is a change in workplace rules or policies to allow employees to engage in their religious practices. Employers are required to provide reasonable accommodations so long as they pose only minimal expense and do not impose an undue hardship on the conduct of the business. An employer cannot refuse an accommodation simply because providing that same accommodation to all employees would pose an undue hardship. Only if accommodating the employee in question would be an undue hardship can the employer refuse to make the accommodation. Common accommodations include flexible scheduling, voluntary shift swaps, and job transfers.

As you might expect, the general principles of accommodation apply equally to persons of all religions as well as to atheists and agnostics. In each instance, the employer should apply the following analysis: Does the employee's religious belief actually conflict with a work policy or job duty? If so, how can the conflict be avoided? Do any of the measures to avoid the conflict with the employee's religious beliefs impose only minor inconvenience or minimal cost to the company? If so, the company is required to provide an accommodation to the employee. Here are a few general guidelines on the most frequent religious accommodations issues:

Dress & Grooming Standards

Employers are generally obliged to permit employees to wear religious-oriented dress and follow grooming standards associated with their particular religion. Recently, a car rental agency lost a religious discrimination case after it refused to permit an employee to wear a scarf over her head as required by her religion. Where business necessity, such as safety requirements, require that religious garb not be worn, an employer can refuse to accommodate religious garb. Typically, however, an employer's desire for all employees to be dressed uniformly or to have "neat" grooming is not sufficient to refuse to accommodate an employee's religious garb or grooming.

Holidays

We frequently receive questions about accommodating employees' religious holidays. Generally, employers should be able to accommodate employees' requests for time off or reduced hours for religious holidays. Appropriate accommodations can include posting a notice seeking volunteers to work for the employee, allowing or requiring the employee to make up the lost time, and requiring or allowing the employee to use vacation or paid leave time. Some of the more common religious holidays include Christmas, Good Friday, Hanukkah (December 12-23, 2006), Eid Ul-Fitr (day after the end of Ramadan, approximately October 24), Eid Ul-Adha (December 31, 2006, December 20, 2007), Passover (April 3-10, 2007), Rosh Hashanah (September 23, 2006, September 13, 2007), and Yom Kippur (October 1-2, 2006).

Saturday/Sunday Work

Objections to working on Saturdays or Sundays for religious reasons is probably the most common religious accommodation issues faced by employers. Where the need to work on a Saturday or Sunday occurs on an occasional basis, employers can accommodate employees by seeking volunteers to work overtime in the place of the objecting employee. While this can be accomplished by simply posting a notice seeking volunteers, employers are not required to actually contact other employees. If other employees decline to pick up the additional weekend work, employers can, in most instances, require the objecting employee to work despite the employee's religious beliefs. The EEOC has concluded that the occasional need to pay premium or overtime pay to another employee to accommodate an employee's religious objections to working on Saturdays or Sundays is not an undue hardship, but requiring an employer to regularly pay premium rates is an undue burden. Consequently, where an employee's position regularly requires weekend work that cannot be swapped to other employees on a voluntary basis without paying overtime or premium rates, an employer is generally not required to do so.

Selection Practices

It is illegal to refuse to hire someone because that person will need a religious accommodation unless the employer can show that providing the needed accommodation would be an undue hardship. For example, an employer should not refuse to hire someone who cannot work Saturdays for religious reasons because the position occasionally requires Saturday overtime. Instead, before hiring the person, the employer should explore what measures it will take to accommodate the person's religious beliefs as discussed above.

Should you have any questions about religious accommodation issues, equal employment opportunity issues, hiring and firing, or any other labor and employment situation, please contact any member of our Labor and Employment Law Practice Group.

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