Written by attorney Beth Lincow Cole

Weekend Workers: Can You Ask Employees to Choose Between Their Religion and Their Job?

Religious discrimination can be a greater concern for companies that operate seven days a week, as employees sometimes have religious conflicts with working on Saturdays or Sundays.

For example, salon chain Supercuts recently agreed to pay $43,500 to settle a religious accommodation and retaliation lawsuit brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) after it failed to accommodate an employee’s request to not work on Sundays.

According to the EEOC, Carolyn Sedar had been employed as a stylist and shift manager for Supercuts in Pleasant Hill, Calif. Since 1999, store managers accommodated her observance of her Christian Sabbath by permitting her not to work on Sundays until November 2008, when a new store manager scheduled Sedar for a Sunday shift. Despite written and oral requests to managers informing them that she could not work on her Sabbath, Supercuts refused to excuse Sedar and subsequently terminated her after she refused to work on two consecutive Sundays.

As this case demonstrates, failing to accommodate sincerely held religious beliefs can lead to a costly lawsuit. Therefore, it is important for managers and supervisors to understand how to respond to a request for accommodation.

As employers should be aware, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 requires employers to reasonably accommodate the sincerely held religious beliefs of an employee, unless to do so would be unreasonable or create an undue hardship upon the employer. The two most common issues that arise are (1) is the religious belief sincere; and (2) would accommodating the request would place an excessive burden on the employer.

Sincere Religious Belief

In simple terms, the religious belief for which the employee seeks accommodation must be legitimate. In the case of an employee asked to work weekends, issues of sincerity may arise an employee who has generally been non-religious suddenly points to his long-standing religious beliefs as an explanation for why he does not want to work on Saturdays when other facts suggest that he wants to join a golf league that plays on the weekend. In these cases, the employer may be justified in challenging the employee’s request for accommodation.

At the same time, the employer should not assume that a request is invalid simply because it is based on religious beliefs or practices with which the employer is unfamiliar, but should ask the employee to explain the religious nature of the practice and the way in which it conflicts with a work requirement.

Undue Hardship

An employer is required to accommodate an employee’s request for accommodation within reason. To establish undue hardship, the employer must demonstrate that the accommodation would require more than de minimis cost. Costs are not limited to direct monetary costs but also include the burden on the conduct of the employer’s business.

For example, courts have found undue hardship where the accommodation diminishes efficiency in other jobs, infringes on other employees’ job rights or benefits, impairs workplace safety, or causes co-workers to carry the accommodated employee’s share of potentially hazardous or burdensome work.

Message for Employers

As in many employment law matters, there is no bright line rule for religious accommodation. Therefore, requests must be decided on a case-by-case basis by taking all of the factors above into consideration. Ultimately, employer-employee cooperation and flexibility are often required to reach a reasonable accommodation.

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