By KAREN MICHAEL Special Envoy
Former US Postal employee Gerald Groff sued his employer, claiming it failed to provide him with a reasonable accommodation for his religious beliefs. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to employees whose sincere religious beliefs conflict with a work rule, unless it creates an undue hardship.
The Third Circuit upheld a lower court ruling that the Sunday work exemption caused the USPS undue hardship.
Groff’s religious beliefs dictated that he observe the Sabbath on Sundays, thus reserving Sundays for worship and rest, not work.
Groff worked as a Rural Carrier Associate (RCA), providing coverage for absent employees. The job was an “on call” position and he was expected to work as needed. At the time of Groff’s hiring, there was a shortage of RCAs in his area.
USPS began delivering Sunday packages for Amazon in 2013, a year after Groff was hired. According to the case, “The success of Amazon Sunday delivery was critical to USPS.”
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When Groff informed his employer that he would not be reporting to work on Sunday, the USPS offered several proposed accommodations to include Groff coming to work on Sunday after morning services or seeking others to take his shift. . During the 2017 high season, other employees had to work all Sunday shifts. Groff “acknowledged that fellow RCA had to shoulder the burden of Amazon Sundays alone during the 2017 peak season,” according to the case.
According to the case, “To accommodate Groff during the 2018 peak season, Holtwood Postmaster again attempted to find cover for each Sunday Groff was scheduled to work. Holtwood Postmaster described the search for cover for Groff as “not always easy” . . time-consuming, and [that] he added to [his] workload and those of other postmasters.
The impact of Groff not working on Sundays also caused the postmaster himself to deliver the mail on Sundays. The USPS also alleged that “Groff’s refusal to report on Sundays created a ‘tense atmosphere among other RCAs as they had to work more on Sundays to cover up Groff’s absences as well as ‘resentment towards management’.” .
Other carriers were called to work more frequently due to Groff’s absences, resulting in “other employees”[ing] more than their share of hard work,” and other carriers had to deliver more mail than they otherwise would on Sunday.
All of this naturally caused morale problems.
More than 20 Sundays, Groff did not work and no colleague could exchange shifts with him. Groff was disciplined and then resigned.
In dismissing the lawsuit, the district court found that the USPS had offered reasonable accommodations to include shift trades despite Groff being “unhappy with it.” The court found that Groff not working on Sundays constituted undue hardship, in part because “it required the only other RCA to work ‘every Sunday without a break’.”
The appeals court took a slightly different view, concluding that the accommodation offered to Groff was unreasonable because it did not eliminate the conflict. Of the 24 Sundays he was scheduled to work, the USPS could not find a volunteer, and as a result, Groff was disciplined. The appeals court held that “Thus, while exchanging teams may be a reasonable means of accommodating conflicting religious practice, here it did not constitute ‘accommodation’ as contemplated by Title VII. , as he failed to eliminate the conflict. »
However, the tribunal found that the accommodation constituted undue hardship, stating, “An employer is not required to ‘accommodate at all costs’. He said: “’Undue hardship’ is hardship that results in more than a de minimis cost to the employer.
The court ruled that “Groff’s proposed accommodation of being excused from Sunday work would cause undue hardship. Exempting Groff from working Sundays caused more than a minimal cost to the USPS, as it actually taxed his colleagues, disrupted the workplace and work flow, and lowered employee morale” at the facilities. The court noted that other employees had to cover his shifts and “give up their family time, their ability to attend church services if they wished to,” and these additional requirements “created a tense atmosphere with the other RCAs”.
The court also noted the impact of the absences on “operations and morale”, so much so that another employee filed a grievance for delivering extra mail.
Employers should review each request for religious accommodation and engage in the interactive discussion to determine if accommodations can be provided. Demonstrating a good faith effort to accommodate employees is essential, but the accommodation provided to the employee must not negatively impact other workers or operations.
Karen Michael is a lawyer and president of Richmond-based Karen Michael PLC and author of “Stay Hired”. She can be contacted at [email protected]