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Giving employee the Sabbath day off: When is it an ‘undue hardship’?

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

Federal religious discrimination law (Title VII) says employers are obligated to “reasonably accommodate” an employee’s religious belief and practices, unless doing so would cause an “undue hardship” to the organization (see box below).  

In this case, accommodating an employee’s request for every Sabbath day off could effectively invalidate a collective-bargaining seniority system and create a real hardship for the other employees who would have to work instead.

Recent case: Because the U.S. Postal Service delivers mail six days a week, employees typically don’t have every weekend off. When Hosea Harrell was hired as a carrier, there were seven full-time letter carriers and three part-timers. All but the most senior carrier rotated shifts so they had a Saturday off about every six weeks.

Soon after starting, Harrell said he was a Seventh-day Adventist who was not allowed to work Saturdays. He requested every Saturday off as an accommodation.

His boss said it would be impossible because a union contract dictated who got Saturday off based on seniority, and Harrell had the least seniority. He was offered part of the day off to attend church services. He declined and simply didn’t show up. The post office fired him.

Harrell sued, alleging failure to accommodate. The court dismissed the case, agreeing there was undue hardship for both the employer and co-workers. (Harrell v. Donahoe, No. 10-1694, 8th Cir., 2011)

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