Discrimination based upon religion is in the news today after the EEOC just sued a Food Lion store in North Carolina for refusing to accommodate, and firing, an employee who is a Jehovah’s Witness.
When he was hired as a meat cutter, the employee told the store manager that his religious beliefs required him to attend church services Sundays and Thursday evenings. The manager agreed to accommodate this request, but when he was transferred to another store, his new manager fired him noting that he didn’t know how the employee could not work on Sundays.
An EEOC attorney stated: “Many decision makers seem to forget that unless providing a reasonable accommodation would impose an undue hardship on the company, the accommodation must be provided. No person should ever be forced to choose between his religion and his job.”
On October 26, 2013, we recommended an article in the Wall Street Journal (page B1) about the increasing number of claims of religious discrimination: “Part of the surge comes from employees – Muslims, Christians, Seventh-Day Adventists and others – who were denied requests to avoid work on Sabbath days. Conflicts also have erupted over workers’ appearance, particularly in jobs requiring uniforms, involving food preparation and in image-focused fashion retailing.”
We also reported last year that the EEOC announced that it had settled (for $70,000) a case of religious discrimination against an employee who was a Jehovah’s Witness because the employer failed to accommodate his request for a schedule change so he could attend an annual religious service. Besides having his request denied, he was fired, and also placed on the company’s list of “do not rehire” employees.
An EEOC trial attorney said what we always advise employers: “Businesses have a clear legal duty under federal law to handle requests for religious accommodations from their employees with due amounts of consideration.”
We have blogged many times about religious accommodation issues, which though complicated, cannot simply be ignored or unilaterally denied without making some attempt to accommodate the employee. Many such cases involve time off, as this latest one does, but many involve dress and grooming codes.
Two years ago, my partner Christina wrote about a workshop sponsored by the EEOC’s Training Institute and the agency’s Washington, D.C., field office, where a senior attorney noted that these types of cases are “low hanging fruit.”
“The reason is that these cases,” she wrote, “unlike a lot of employment cases, do not usually involve a lot of documents or witnesses. Instead, it usually involves a low level manager who is strictly enforcing a dress code that is usually contained in one or two paragraphs of a handbook. As the senior EEOC attorney stated, managers need to be trained that certain religious beliefs may mean that employees cannot comply with a dress code. Managers also need to be trained that a dress code is not carved in stone and some flexibility may need to be applied.”