Court Says Employers Must Accommodate Religious Beliefs But Not All That Much

A federal appeals court just reminded us who wins the battle between an employee’s firmly held religious beliefs and an employer’s need for weekend work.

Darrell Patterson worked at the 24-hour Walgreens Customer Care Center in Orlando, FL.  Patterson informed Walgreens up front as a Seventh-day Adventist, his faith demanded that he not work from sundown Friday through sundown on Saturday.  The company was able to accommodate Patterson’s religious needs by allowing him to swap shifts with other employees whenever a need arose that would require him to work during his Sabbath.

Patterson was promoted several times, eventually obtaining one of two trainer positions at the Orlando facility. Patterson’s religious beliefs were accommodated in this role through his supervisor’s agreement that training classes would only be scheduled from Sunday through Thursday.

There’s No Rest on This Weekend

This arrangement worked well until the Walgreens Call Center in Muscle Shoals, AL had to close suddenly (the court decision never explained why).  The Orlando Call Center employees then had to be trained immediately on how to handle the approximately 50,000 additional calls per month that they would now be expected to handle.  Patterson was directed to conduct that training the following day, which happened to be a Saturday, and Patterson refused.

Patterson’s supervisor told him that if he could not do the training, he needed to find someone else who could. Naturally, Patterson contacted the other trainer but she was unable to fill in, and Patterson took no other steps to find a replacement.  Instead, he just left a message for his supervisor informing her that he would not be coming in on Saturday.  This caused the training to be delayed until the following Tuesday.

When Patterson returned to work from the weekend, he met with his supervisor and a human resources representative to review the matter.  Patterson reaffirmed that he would never agree to work weekends under any circumstances.  The HR representative suggested that perhaps he could find another job within Walgreens that had a larger pool of potential substitutes for those occasions when he might be asked to work during the weekend.  Patterson responded by asking for a firm guarantee that he would never have to work during his Sabbath.

The Employer’s Burden is Light

Walgreens rejected Patterson’s request, noting that he was one of only two people in his position and that his counterpart had already provided notice of intent to resign. In light of the recent emergency involving the closed facility, and the possibility that other similarly urgent circumstances might arise, they simply could not guarantee that Patterson would not be required to work during the period of his religious observance.  They therefore terminated his employment.

Patterson sued for religious discrimination under Title VII.  After the lower court dismissed the claim on summary judgement, Patterson appealed to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, who acknowledged that Title VII does indeed require employers to accommodate an employee’s bona fide religious beliefs as long as the accommodation does not pose an undue hardship for the employer.  The Appeals Court cautioned, however, that the U.S. Supreme Court has already declared that the employer’s obligation in this regard does not require anything more than a de minimis (minimal) cost or inconvenience.

Turning to Patterson’s claims, the appeals court concluded that Walgreens met their duty to accommodate Patterson’s religious observances by allowing him to switch shifts with a co-worker or try to secure another position that would make it easier for him to do so in the future.  The possibility that Patterson might be called upon to work during the weekend, however, meant that Patterson’s requested accommodation – a guarantee against weekend work – was an undue hardship for the company.  The appeals court therefore affirmed the dismissal of Patterson’s case.

Bottom Line

While an employer must accommodate an employee’s religious observances, the bar for what constitutes an undue hardship is set substantially lower in such cases than for disability accommodation matters under the Americans with Disabilities Act.  In the case of weekend work, employers need to be open to the employee’s suggestions but probably need not do anything more than simply let the employee switch shifts with a co-worker.

Employers should also consider posting a request for volunteers if feasible, or even asking (but not requiring) some co-workers to switch, but that is the extent of the employer’s burden in such matters.

Interestingly, Patterson has appealed to the Supreme Court and is being supported by a number of religious organizations seeking enhanced protections for employees requiring accommodations for religious observances. We will watch to see if any changes result from this.