By Meghan Droste, March 16, 2021
This month, we continue our discussion of religious accommodations. In January, we looked at what an agency needs to do to establish that providing a religious accommodation to an employee would be an undue hardship (namely that there would actually be some kind of burden or hardship). This month, we’re going to take a step back in process and look at what an agency must do before it can even think about raising the issue of a hardship.
An agency cannot put forward a defense of undue hardship unless it can show that it made some effort to accommodate the complainant. This does not have to be the accommodation the complainant requested. If that accommodation would require more than a de minimis burden, the agency can look at alternative accommodations. But it must show that it made a good faith effort to provide some kind of effective accommodation before it can deny a request because of the burdens associated with it.
The Commission’s decision in Mac O. v. U.S. Postal Service, EEOC App. No. 0120152431 (Nov. 29, 2017) provides a good illustration of what an agency needs to do. In this case, the complainant’s position as a city carrier assistant required him to work up to six days a week, twelve hours per shift, including holidays, Saturdays, and some Sundays. After working for about one month, the complainant submitted a request to not work from sunset on Friday to sunset on Saturday for religious reasons. The agency denied his request, saying that granting it would require the agency to pay overtime to other employees. When asked what efforts the agency made to provide an accommodation to the complainant, his supervisor testified that she wasn’t aware of any.
In its decision, the Commission agreed that having to pay overtime to other employees would be more than a de minimis burden on the agency. However, the Commission still found in the complainant’s favor on this issue. Why? As the EEOC noted, “it bears repeating that the Agency cannot raise the issue of overtime or any other financial or logistical issue as an undue hardship until it demonstrates that it made a reasonable effort to find an accommodation that would enable Complainant to practice his religion without having to worry about losing his job.”
In Mac. O., the agency made no effort to determine whether it would be possible for the complainant to swap schedules. It also failed to consider the complainant’s request for a transfer to a location that was closed on Friday evenings and Saturdays. Now it’s possible that schedule swaps wouldn’t have been possible or that there was no available position to transfer the complainant to, meaning that the agency couldn’t have accommodated him without an undue hardship. But because the agency made no effort, let alone a good faith effort, to look into these possibilities, the Commission found it liable for failing to accommodate the complainant.
Just as with requests for disability-related accommodations, make sure you are making a good faith effort to actually provide accommodations before denying a request. Doing so will save you the headache of unnecessary litigation, and will also make sure your agency’s employees can stay on the job and keep working. Droste@FELTG.com