Under Title VII, employers are required to provide reasonable accommodation to employees' religious beliefs. The most common religious accommodation request involves time away from work for worship or related purposes. In many cases, this accommodation request can only be met by having co-workers cover the shifts otherwise worked by the employee requesting the accommodation. In an unpublished decision issued last month, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals decided 2-1 that burdens placed on co-workers from granting a religious accommodation are not by themselves enough to deny the request.
In Crider v. Univ. of Tenn., Knoxville, the plaintiff was a Seventh-day Adventist who worked in the University's study abroad program. The three employees in her department were required to rotate an on-call schedule that made them available to deal with student emergencies. The plaintiff informed her employer that she needed to be excused from on-call duties on Saturdays due to her religious beliefs. The University offered to allow the plaintiff to seek voluntary shift swaps with her two co-workers, but the co-workers objected, noting that this would increase the number of weekends when they could not travel. Based on these objections, the University denied the accommodation request and terminated the plaintiff.
The Sixth Circuit reversed a grant of summary judgment for the University. The court said that the dismissal was incorrect because it focused on the co-worker objections rather than the impact of the accommodation request on the employer. Burdens placed on co-workers are not an adequate basis to reject an accommodation request unless the employer demonstrates an undue hardship imposed on the business resulting from such burdens. For example, an employer could show that the shift swaps violate the terms of a collective bargaining agreement, or that they would have resulted in a significant likelihood that the co-workers would quit rather than agree to the swaps.
Employers should exercise caution when reacting to this decision. The
Sixth Circuit's reasoning is contrary to a number of other federal court decisions that limit their analysis to burdens placed on co-workers. However, in an abundance of caution, employers should document the likely undue hardship placed on the business resulting from employee objections to having to work additional undesirable shifts to accommodate a co-worker's religious beliefs.