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When religious needs conflict with schedule, shift swaps may be reasonable accommodation

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in Employment Law,HR Management,Human Resources,Leaders & Managers,Management Training

Many employers make it easy for employees to swap shifts if they consider their hours undesirable or inconvenient. Employers may do this by preparing the schedule well ahead of time and posting it where employees can easily see it. That makes it easy for management to know who is swapping with whom and to approve swaps arranged between employees.

Such a system goes a long way toward maintaining good morale. It also eliminates lots of scheduling headaches, and—if handled consistently—lessens the threat of litigation over alleged favoritism by the scheduling manager.

As an additional plus, a shift-swap policy may also be all you need to win a religious accommodation lawsuit. That’s what happened in one recent case.

Recent case: Kimberly Bloom describes herself as a born-again Christian. She claims her former employer, the Aldi grocery store chain, refused to accommodate her religious belief that it’s a sin to work on Sundays.

Bloom worked as a part-time cashier and did not work on Sundays since the store was closed all day. Then competition forced Aldi to open on Sundays. Aldi had a shift-swap system that allowed employees to trade shifts. Bloom had used the system regularly, including during the week she got fired.

When making the transition to Sunday openings, Aldi told employees that cashiers would rotate so that they needed to work only a few Sundays per year. When it was Bloom’s turn, she told her supervisor she couldn’t work on Sundays at all. The supervisor offered to allow her enough time off for worship services, but Bloom explained that she never attended services. She believed that working at all on Sundays was a sin.

That Sunday, Bloom didn’t show up for work. She was rescheduled for the following Sunday and again didn’t show. This time, she was fired.

The EEOC sued on her behalf, and a jury concluded that Aldi had offered to reasonably accommodate Bloom. The EEOC asked the court to reconsider, arguing that no one had specifically told Bloom she could try to swap out her shifts.
The judge said Aldi managers didn’t have to tell Bloom specifically. It was enough that the company had a swap system that employees routinely used. Bloom knew about the system and had used it for another reason the week before she was terminated. She could have used it to avoid Sunday shifts, too. (EEOC v. Aldi, No. 06-01210, WD PA, 2009)

Final note: The court rejected Aldi’s other supposed reasonable accommodations. For example, offering Bloom time off to worship wasn’t enough because it didn’t accommodate her specific belief that all Sunday work is sinful. Nor could Aldi rely on a system that rotated Sunday shifts among all cashiers because that still required Bloom to work some Sundays. Luckily, the swap system was enough of a reasonable accommodation to satisfy the court that it had balanced employees’ religious needs with the store’s need to run its business.

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