Reasonable Accommodation & Religion: How Far Does an Employer’s Obligation Go?

By Katherine Muniz
October 2, 2017

The legal obligation to provide reasonable accommodation to an employee’s religious beliefs or practices in the workplace is enforced by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). We recently touched upon this requirement in a blog post on prohibited practices in the hiring process, and today we’re breaking down the requirements of reasonable accommodation, and when difficulty or expense becomes too daunting to reasonably accommodate.

The Law

If you’re unfamiliar with the law, the EEOC (which enforces civil rights laws against workplace discrimination), prohibits an employer from treating a job applicant or employee unfavorably because of his or her religious beliefs. Religious discrimination is prohibited in all aspects of employment, from advertising a job to interviewing job applicants, through hiring an employee. Once an employee is hired, employers must reasonably accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs or practices, “unless doing so would cause more than a minimal burden on the operations of the employer’s business.”

Interpreting the Law

This requirement, broken down, essentially tasks employers with making reasonable adjustments to the work environment that will allow an employee to practice his or her religion.

“An employer does have a legal obligation to provide an individual a reasonable accommodation, which refers to the relieving or altering of a work obligation so that an employee can engage in religious conduct and practices,” explains Labor & Employment Attorney and HR Consultant Lori Rassas. “This obligation is not absolute, however, because the employer is required to provide accommodation only to the extent it will not impose an undue burden.”

Ms. Rassar explains that an undue burden can be defined as “a cost or hardship that is more than a ‘de minimis’ cost. De minimis is the Latin term for minimal importance, and it refers to an insignificant or minimal burden, which an employer would likely be required to withstand in an effort to reasonably accommodate an individual’s religious belief or practice.”

How Employers Typically Reasonably Accommodate

Typically, employers have no problem accommodating employees, though exceptions do occur, says David D. Schein, an employment attorney and HR consultant at Claremont Management Group.

“I have been working with this issue for almost 40 years as an employment attorney and HR consultant. In most cases, employers can accommodate by giving employees time off without pay or allowing them to use vacation pay for full-day absences. For leaving early to teach a Christian Education class or for Sabbath observance, most of my clients have been able to do this with little effort. The most critical issue has been in 24-7 operations like oil refineries. Most of these operations are unionized and generally, the union contract trumps the religious accommodation rules.”

When Accommodating Causes an Undue Burden

If accommodating with a specific request causes an undue burden to the employer to comply with this request, they must look at the issue from all angles, says Ms. Rassas.

“The determination as to what does and does not constitute an undue burden is a fact-specific analysis that considers a number of financial and nonfinancial factors, such as the type of workplace, the nature of the employee’s duties, and the cost of the accommodation as compared to the budget of the employer,” explains Ms. Rassas.

“To illustrate that an accommodation would impose an undue burden, the employer should be prepared to provide tangible proof of the cost of providing the accommodation or the level of disruption it would cause. An employer will likely not be able to sustain this burden either by suggesting the accommodation might elicit an adverse reaction from other employees or by projecting a minimal financial cost that might be incurred by providing it.”

For instance, an employer who receives a request to allow an employee to leave work at sundown on Friday for religious reasons may or may not be obligated to reasonably accommodate that employee.

Here are the differentiating factors:

  • If an employer has other employees available to cover the shift and the employee would not be paid for the missed time, the employer would be strongly obligated, despite the minimal administrative burden the shift change would cost, or if the covering employee earns a higher hourly rate.
  • If a small employer receives this request to relieve the employee on its busiest day of the year and has no other employees who would be able to cover the shift, the obligation changes. The employer may be able to show that providing this relief would constitute an undue burden, and in that case, refuse.
Disclaimer: This article is a general summarization of the rules governing reasonable accommodation & religion. Employers are encouraged to contact professional legal counsel if they are seeking guidance beyond the information provided in this article.

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