For several months now, I keep reading about an increase in religious discrimination lawsuits and agency charges. Last week an EEOC Update notified me of an upheld verdict in excess of $1.5 million against AT&T because AT&T denied two employees their right to go to a Jehovah’s Witnesses convention. Upon investigating, my perception is correct: religious discrimination charges have proliferated and now roughly 10 charges are filed each day across the country. In fact, the EEOC even issued a new Compliance Manual Section regarding religious discrimination, harassment, and accommodation in July 2008. What a great time to review the issues surrounding religious discrimination.
Today’s workforce is as diverse as it has ever been, and with that diversity comes religions and practices that are foreign to Judeo-Christian traditions. The statutory definition of religion includes “all aspects of religious observance and practice, as well as belief.” Therefore, Title VII covers both beliefs and practices that carry out such beliefs. The challenge for employers is striking the appropriate balance between the needs of the religion and the legitimate needs of the business.
The best way for companies to avoid religious accommodation charges is to carefully listen to each request by every employee, determine if any possible accommodation could be made, and document both the request and the company’s response. Obviously, have both sides sign off on the accuracy of the documentation.
The employer is not required to make a total accommodation, nor is it as demanding as the duty to accommodate a disability. Rather, companies must only work towards a reasonable solution that eliminates the conflict between the employment requirements and the actual religious beliefs or practices without causing “undue hardship” to the employer’s business.
There is no requirement that the employee be granted the “best” accommodation, or the employee’s “preferred” accommodation. If the accommodation costs more than ordinary administrative expenses (a de minimis amount), there is no duty to accommodate in that manner. With that said, the larger and more financially secure the company, the greater the expense of what is a reasonable accommodation.
Like AT&T, had Gold’n Plump Poultry, Inc. and The Work Connection (which referred workers to Gold’n Plump) paid more attention to their employees’ requests for religious accommodation, they could have avoided the $365,000 settlement charge for discriminating against two Muslim employees. In addition to the monetary penalty, Gold’n Plump had to add a paid break during the second half of each shift for Muslims who desired to pray during the day, and the timing of that break fluctuated during the year so as to coordinate with the religious timing for Muslim prayers. The EEOC had alleged in The Work Connection case that, in order to be referred for work at Gold’n Plump’s facilities, applicants were required to sign a form stating that they would not refuse to handle pork in the course of their jobs. In addition to stopping the use of the “pork form,” The Work Connection was required to offer placement at Gold’n Plump to job seekers previously turned away for refusing to sign the form.
Clearly the AT&T and Gold’n Plump cases highlight the complexity of religious accommodation as well as the severe penalties that can be levied against employers who violate the law.