The U.S. Supreme Court issued several blockbuster decisions in the past month, so you may be forgiven if you missed Groff v. DeJoy, which raised the burden on employers when a worker requests a reasonable accommodation based on religion.
In Groff, which started with a lawsuit in federal court in Philadelphia, an evangelical Christian sued the U.S. Postal Service for giving him progressive discipline for not working on Sundays, which he said his religion forbade. Many Christians, Jews, Muslims and people of other faiths assert that they cannot work certain days because of their religion.
The Postal Service, relying on a Supreme Court standard in place for more than 40 years, claimed an “undue hardship” because accommodating him would negatively affect his co-workers (forcing them to work more on Sundays) and could violate the terms of a collective bargaining agreement with workers. Such reasons have been sufficient in past court cases to meet the “de minimis” cost standard to show an undue hardship in response to a request for an accommodation due to religion.
In a sweeping decision that echoed other recent expansions of religious rights, Justice Samuel Alito’s majority opinion completely changed the “undue hardship” standard to now require employers to show that they would suffer a substantial cost to deny an accommodation. Such cost is to be considered in light of the overall finances and size of the employer, and whether it explored other options, such as shift swapping, duty changes, job reassignments, paying incentives to other workers to cover the absence, and perhaps coordinating with other facilities or departments of the employer.
As a result, employers now face a much more onerous burden – akin to that required when a disabled employee requests an accommodation – for religious accommodations. In light of Groff, some employees will be shouting “Alleluia!” But others of a more secular bent may be singing the blues, as they have to work harder or make changes to cover for their religious brethren.
For employers, a revamp is in order. We highly recommend education and re-training for all Human Resources personnel, company lawyers, and managers who handle religious accommodation requests. In addition, company policies should be reviewed to determine whether they require updating.