US Postal Service Employee’s Request for a Sunday Work Exemption Because of His Religious Beliefs was an Undue Hardship
May 31, 2022
Gerald Groff (“Groff”) a Rural Carrier Associate (“RCA”) with the US Postal Service (“USPS”) resigned his position when USPS refused his religious accommodation request for an exemption from working on Sundays. The Court of Appeals ruled that although USPS did not provide reasonable accommodation to Groff’s religious beliefs, it did not violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (“Title VII”) because granting his request would have been an undue hardship. Groff v. Louis DeJoy (3rd Circuit Court of Appeals, May 25, 2022).
RCAs are non-career USPS employees who provide coverage for absent career employees and have to work on certain Sundays and holidays pursuant to USPS’s contract with Amazon. Groff’s religious beliefs dictate that he does not work on Sunday as it is meant as a day of worship and rest. To accommodate Groff’s religious beliefs, USPS offered to find employees to swap Sunday shifts and to adjust Groff’s work schedule to allow him to attend morning religious services and report to work afterward. Groff declined USPS’s offer to allow him to attend Sunday morning religious services and report to work later in the day. However, even with the agreed-to voluntary employee shift swaps, on more than twenty Sundays, no co-workers were willing or available to swap Groff’s Sunday shift and he did not work. USPS disciplined Groff for missing work, and he eventually resigned from his employment. Groff filed suit claiming USPS violated Title VII by failing to reasonably accommodate his religious beliefs.
While the trial court, on summary judgment motions, ruled that USPS reasonably accommodated Groff’s religious beliefs as required by Title VII, on appeal, the Court of Appeals disagreed finding that the accommodations offered did not eliminate Groff’s work-religious conflict and therefore did not qualify as a Title VII reasonable accommodation. “[A] legally sufficient accommodation under Title VII’s religious discrimination provision is one that eliminates the conflict between the religious practice and the job requirement.” The Court also cited the EEOC’s Compliance Manual which states that “[a]n adjustment offered by an employer is not a ‘reasonable’ accommodation if it merely lessens rather than eliminates the conflict between religion and work, provided that eliminating the conflict wound not impose an undue hardship.” USPS’s offer to provide voluntary Sunday shift swaps did not completely eliminate the conflict with Groff’s religious beliefs and his work requirements.
However, Groff’s accommodation request, never to work any Sundays, did and would continue to cause undue hardship for USPS. Under hardship, for Title VII purposes, is defined as a hardship that results in more than a de minimis of costs to the employer. “The undue hardship analysis is case-specific…though it is not a difficult threshold to pass.” The evidence presented to the Court showed that Groff’s accommodation and request for additional accommodations imposed hardships on his co-workers, disrupted the workplace and workflow, and diminished employee morale. The Court cited other examples of undue hardship such as impacted productivity, personnel and overtime costs, and increased workload on other employees. Since exempting Groff from Sunday work caused undue hardship, USPS did not violate Title VII by refusing his accommodation.
While Title VII requires all covered employers to reasonably accommodate employees’ religious accommodations requests, employers may have a defense to such requests if they can provide evidence that granting the accommodation would cause undue hardship to its operations. This requires a fact-specific analysis and consultation with counsel is recommended before asserting an undue hardship defense.