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When Are Prayer Breaks an ‘Unreasonable’ Accommodation?

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Federal law requires your organization to grant “reasonable” accommodations for employees’ religious practices. Where’s the line between reasonable and unreasonable? God only knows. But this important new ruling sheds light on when you can say “no” to religious requests …

Case in Point: About 200 Muslim employees who worked at a Nebraska meatpacking slaughterhouse requested unscheduled breaks to pray more closely to sunset. The employer refused, saying that allowing that many employees to take unscheduled breaks at once would constitute an “undue hardship.” (Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 says employers don’t have to grant accommodations if they’re an undue hardship on the employer.)

A lower court ruled in favor of the employees. But on appeal that ruling was reversed and a court sided with the slaughterhouse, saying, “this accommodation would have imposed more than a de minimis cost on  (the employer), as well as on co-workers.” Where's the beef? The court cited these main reasons this break request was a "hardship":

  • Extra breaks would slow the production lines, increasing the risks of meat contamination.
  • The remaining employees would have to speed up their work to dangerous levels to prevent contamination, which could result in injuries because they worked with dangerous equipment.
  • The unscheduled breaks could require significant overtime costs to catch up on production. (Each unscheduled break would cost the employer over $18,000 per plant per day.)
  • The facilities were not large enough to accommodate mass breaks because the cafeteria, washrooms and lockers were set up to accommodate smaller groups of employees on a rolling shift schedule.

Bottom line: The court concluded that “disruption of work routines and a lowering of employee morale can constitute an undue hardship in a religious accommodation case.” (EEOC v. JBS)

3 Lessons Learned … Without Going To Court

  1. Safety matters. The court first considered many safety issues, including possible food contamination and the risk to remaining employees if they had to work faster around heavy equipment. The safety analysis is critical to exerting the undue hardship defense.
  2. Money matters. The court considered the costs associated with overtime, ending shifts 15 minutes early and granting additional breaks to the breaks already scheduled. Because so many employees were involved, the costs were higher than granting a few accommodations here and there on a case-by-case basis.
  3. Culture matters, too. This is important because the court looked at the impact of granting one group a reasonable accommodation at the expense of those who do not share the same religious beliefs. There were already employee walkouts and protests that disrupted the business. It seemed like avoiding one discrimination lawsuit could potentially beget another.

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