Prior to the wave of COVID-19 related mandatory vaccination exemption requests, the most common form of religious accommodation sought by employees involved time off for religious observations. Employees commonly advise employers that their religion does not allow them to work on certain days of the week and request that their schedules be modified to accommodate these beliefs.
In response to these requests, employers often tell the employee that they can ask co-workers to swap shifts to allow them to miss work on the requested days. Last week, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals said that in some circumstances, allowing shift swaps as the only form of accommodation may not meet an employer’s obligations under Title VII.
In Groff v. DeJoy, the plaintiff was a U.S. Postal Service employee scheduled to work Sundays under a new Amazon delivery contract. He requested a religious accommodation that would not require him to work on his Sabbath. After looking at several options, the employer offered to allow the plaintiff to change shifts with other employees to accommodate this observance. The employee eventually resigned and filed suit, claiming that the proffered accommodation was inadequate under Title VII.
The Third Circuit agreed with this point but affirmed dismissal of the lawsuit. First, the court held that in some circumstances, permitting shift swaps is not a true accommodation because, as in this case, it fails to resolve the employee’s conflict. However, the Third Circuit affirmed dismissal of the claim because all of the employee’s alternative requested accommodations resulted in an undue hardship for the employer.
This case demonstrates that simply offering to allow an employee to swap shifts with co-workers may not fulfill an employer’s religious accommodation obligations. The employer should explore other ways to allow the employee to miss work at those times. As in this situation, the eventual conclusion may be that there are no available reasonable accommodations. However, reviewing all options, including those proposed by the employee, can help the company avoid allegations that it failed to consider potential accommodations.