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When employee requests religious accommodation, be sure to consider all possible options

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

When an employee approaches you about a religious need that requires accommodation, make sure you consider all the details. Don’t rely on a standard response.

Do think of creative ways that will allow the employee to exercise his religion but that won’t unduly burden either your operations or other employees.

There are often several ways to accommodate religious needs and practices. When the big question is accommodating a day off every week to observe the Sabbath, be sure to consider several options before rejecting the request. Don’t rely on just one possible accommodation. Offer choices when possible.

Recent case: Over several decades, Molbert rose through the ranks at Scotland Manufacturing, eventually becoming one of two specialty workers, one of whom was always required to be on hand.

When business boomed, the steel maker went from running a single shift per day to a 24-hour operation. In Molbert’s department, ­employees had to work one of two weekly sched­ules: either 10 hours per day Monday through Thursday, or 12 hours per day Friday through Sunday.

Molbert had never worked on Sundays; he told his supervisors that his religion forbade it. When the new shift schedule was implemented, he was on the Monday-through-Thursday shift. After three months, however, the company decided to rotate the shifts so employees worked the 10-hour schedule one week and the 12-hour schedule the next. That meant Molbert was scheduled to work every other Sunday.

He complained, again explaining his religious accommodation needs. Scotland Manufacturing said he could use vacation days to take scheduled Sundays off, but insisted no other accommodation was feasible. Molbert was fired for refusing to work Sundays.

He sued, alleging failure to accommodate his religious beliefs. The company countered that it had already offered a reasonable accommodation—using vacation time.

The court said the company had to do better. It couldn’t merely offer vacation time as the only option, but should have considered other accommodations like voluntary shift changes, using additional time off (such as personal days) and seeing whether it was at all feasible for Molbert to work only the weekday shift. For example, the court said the company could have asked the other employee if he minded permanently working the Sunday shifts. The case will go to trial. (Jacobs v. Scotland Manufacturing, No. 1:10-CV-814, MD NC, 2012)

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