Religious Accommodation in the Workplace – 2016

December 31, 2015 Denver Post article written by Emilie Rusch and Jesse Paul reported that Cargill Meat Solutions terminated the employment of approximately 190 employees when it was unable to resolve a workplace prayer dispute with Somali workers at its Fort Morgan, Colorado meatpacking plant.  Impacted employees allege that the plant changed its religious accommodation policy when the company refused to accommodate a group’s request to pray together.  In response to the company’s refusal, the group of approximately 20 employees, mostly immigrants from Somalia, failed to report to work for three consecutive days and were terminated.  In a show of solidarity, another group of 20 employees walked out in the middle of a shift and another 160 failed to report to work, while ten others resigned.

The company asserts that it did not change its accommodation policy and that it provides a “reflection room” for employees to use for prayer in small groups.  It offered that it cannot accommodate larger groups due to the nature of plant operations and maintained that the employees were terminated because they failed to show up for work for three days, in vio-lation of company policy.  The other employees were similarly released for violating company policy by walking off the job.

Before the walkout, Cargill employed roughly 600 Somali workers at the plant.  At present, more than 400 continue to work there and accommodations are still being made to allow Muslims to leave the floor in small groups to pray.

Whether the company failed to accommodate and/or retaliated against are questions that will need to be resolved.  The company acknowledges that there was a desire amongst some employees to pray in larger groups but stated that it couldn’t accommodate that, noting the adverse impact on the flow of production.  Meanwhile, the workers maintain that they pray at different times of the day, typically taking five to ten minutes away from work as part of their legally entitled 15-minute break period or from their unpaid 30-minute lunch breaks.

Did the Company Fail to Accommodate?

Employers may not discriminate against employees or applicants based on their religious beliefs.  This means, for example, that employers may not refuse to hire anyone who does not share their faith, promote only Jews or Catholics, or require background checks only of Muslim employees.  The law also requires employers to accommodate their employees’ religious beliefs and practices, unless doing so would pose an undue hardship.

The obligation to accommodate religious practice arises from the nature of religion: unlike the other characteristics protected by discrimination laws, such as race, age, or gender, religion is not a trait one is born with, but a system of beliefs.  And, unlike other protected traits, religion sometimes requires particular behavior while adherents are at work, such as prayer; observ-ing certain holidays; wearing specified items, types of clothing, or hair styles; or professing one’s faith to others.  Where employees have a sincere religious belief that conflicts with an employment rule or requirement, the law requires an employer to accommodate those beliefs, working with employees to find a way around the conflict.  No one here disputes the sincerity of the employees’ faith.  At issue is whether the request to pray in larger groups was unrea-sonable.  Put another way, would allowing the employees prayer in larger groups have presented an “undue hardship” for the company?

Undue Hardship

Determining whether a requested accommodation presents an undue hardship is highly fact-based.  The EEOC has said that employers may be required to pay administrative costs, such as the cost of time spent on changing schedules or payroll information.  Meanwhile, the courts consider the burden on the business generally.  An accommodation will be deemed an undue hardship if it substantially harms the morale of other employees, reduces efficiency in other jobs, infringes on the rights of other workers, creates safety concerns, or requires coworkers to take on extra work that is burdensome or hazardous.

If it is true that the employees were engaging in prayer while on legally entitled breaks, it is unclear how the request to pray in larger groups would adversely impact safety, cause others to take on additional duties or impose an undue burden.  It seems that if the schedules al-ready permitted larger groups to break simultaneously, refusing to allow employees to spend their breaks together in prayer seems unreasonable.  If, however, the employees were seek-ing to dictate who would break when in order to pray together, accommodation might not be so simple.  It’s troubling that the employer appears to have not engaged in dialogue on the issue and ultimately, although the request may have in fact been unreasonable (depending on answers to various questions), the company’s lack of exchange could prove to be problematic.

Smart Tip:  When presented with a request for reasonable accommodation, remember to engage in good faith dialogue in order to determine the reasonableness based on the facts and issues presented.