Compliance

Supreme Court expected to decide on undue hardship standards for religious accommodations

The court could change the standards employers must consider when dealing with a request for a religious accommodation.
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The Supreme Court is expected to decide on a case this month that addresses “undue hardship” for employers when it comes to religious accommodations.

The case, Groff v. DeJoy, was brought by Gerald Groff, an ex-Postal Service worker who filed a discrimination lawsuit against the USPS after he left the agency because it required him to work on Sundays, when he observes the Sabbath. Groff was hired in 2012, before the service made the deal with Amazon to deliver packages through rain or shine…and also on Sundays. Groff claims he “faced escalating discipline when he refused to report to work on scheduled Sundays, and, believing he would soon be terminated, eventually resigned and sued the USPS for failing to accommodate him under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”

What’s at stake? The court is reconsidering the undue hardship standard set back in 1977 with Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison, which says that employers can let go of a worker who observes a Sabbath.

“The court ruled that it’s an undue hardship if it would be ‘more than a de minimis cost,’ which really is a very low, low standard,” said Jonathan Segal, an employment attorney with Duane Morris. “Since 1977, there have been statements—in public, in opinions—suggesting discomfort with that low standard. In the Groff case, when that went to the Supreme Court, they decided, ‘We’re going to take a look at it.’”

LMGTFY: A “de minimis cost” is a trivial or minimal cost to the employer.

Segal compared the Hardison standard to the higher one outlined in the Americans With Disabilities Act, which requires “significant difficulty or expense” as the defense against the accommodation.

“It's easier now under federal law for employers to prove undue hardship if there’s a religious claim than disability claims,” he said.

What you need to know: Segal predicted that HR could see a rise in requests for these religious accommodations.

"Those kinds of accommodation requests on religion can come into play any time a religious belief, practice, or observance comes into conflict with an employer requirement,” Segal said.

Most accommodation requests have been related to policies around vaccine requirements, dress code requirements, or scheduling conflicts, Segal said.

As employers await the Groff ruling, HR departments should consider their accommodation policies and what may need to shift with this ruling or other new laws like the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, which takes effect June 27.

“It’s really important that HR begin with the premise, ‘We want to grant the accommodation, can we?’ Not, ‘How do we say no?’” Segal said.

He suggests educating managers on how to handle requests. Managers should report the request to HR without saying yes or no, and they should never question the legitimacy of a person’s religion, Segal said.

Quick-to-read HR news & insights

From recruiting and retention to company culture and the latest in HR tech, HR Brew delivers up-to-date industry news and tips to help HR pros stay nimble in today’s fast-changing business environment.