New Standards for Religious Accommodations in the Workplace: A Post-Groff v. DeJoy Guide for Employers
Over the next few months, religious observances and traditions may take center stage. Employers must correctly understand and effectively implement rules for responding to employee requests for religious accommodations in the workplace. Earlier this year, the United States Supreme Court issued a decision that clarified the rigorous standard that employers must abide by when an employee makes a request for a religious accommodation. This “clarified” standard creates the need for increased attention and efforts by employers.
The Previous Legal Landscape
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act mandates that employers must reasonably accommodate the sincerely held religious beliefs and practices of their employees, provided that doing so does not result in undue hardship to the employer.
In a decision issued nearly 50 years ago, the United States Supreme Court emphasized that for an employer to deny the requested religious accommodation, the employer had to establish that a request resulted in a “substantial” cost or expenditure. Rather than focus on that language, however, some lower courts latched on to a singular phrase in that decision, indicating that an employer only needed to establish a “de minimis” cost or expenditure. This alleged mis-interpretation of the Supreme Court’s position has resulted in years of lower court rulings confirming that an employer’s showing of a “de minimis” cost or expenditure was sufficient to deny the employee’s request.
Flash forward to a decision issued earlier this year in which the United States Supreme Court reiterated that while the 1977 decision, Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison, 432 U.S. 63, (1977), is still good law, lower courts were focusing on the incorrect language of “a de minimis” cost. This misplaced focus resulted in many denials of requests for accommodations, making it harder for employees to feel included or to even participate in the work force. Thus, the more recent case, Groff v. DeJoy, officially clarifies what the actual standard is for denying a religious accommodation request.
How Did Groff v. DeJoy Change Things?
In Groff v. DeJoy, the United States Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision, ruled that employers face a more rigorous standard when it comes to demonstrating “undue hardship” as a defense to religious accommodation requests. Employers must show that the burden of granting an accommodation would result in substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of its particular business. The test will look at multiple factors including the particular accommodation at issue and its practical impact in light of the nature, “size and operating cost of an employer.”
Best Practices for Employers
Navigating the evolving landscape of religious accommodation in the workplace requires a proactive and understanding approach. Some helpful tips to achieve this include:
- Open and Effective Communication: Encourage open and empathetic communication between employees and management regarding any requests for religious accommodations.
- Reasonable Alternatives or Accommodations: Explore alternative solutions that can meet both the needs of the employee and the employer without causing undue hardship.
- Documentation: Maintain thorough records of all religious accommodation requests and the steps taken to address the requests. Proper documentation is invaluable in demonstrating compliance with the law.
- Training and Awareness: Train your human resources staff, supervisors, and managers on the legal requirements and best practices related to this new standard.
- Anticipate Holiday Season Requests: Given the approaching holiday season, anticipate an increase in religious accommodation requests. Prepare for this by:
- Communicating with employees about the process, expectations, and deadlines for submitting requests.
- Familiarize yourself with the religious holidays that are significant to your employees.
- Consider implementing temporary policies during the holiday season.
- Be flexible. Allow employees to take time off, shift their work hours, or make necessary adjustments to observe their religious holidays.
- Review the accommodation requests promptly and fairly.
While this guidance is helpful, it is essential to recognize the complexities that may arise when dealing with religious accommodations. Seeking legal counsel specializing in this area is highly advisable. If you have questions regarding the new “clarified” standard, please contact an attorney in Koley Jessen’s Employment, Labor, and Benefits group.