Just as the partial government shutdown shuttered the doors at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the agency announced a $4.9 million settlement in a religious discrimination case.
According to the agency, the shipping company refused to hire persons with long hair or beards, even if their appearance had a religious reason. Furthermore, UPS delayed religious accommodation requests or denied them outright, according to court documents. The company did not admit liability and characterized the settlement as a business decision. We want “to focus our energy on our hiring and promotion process, rather than lengthy and costly court proceedings,” UPS said in a statement.
The settlement is just the latest in a series of employment discrimination claims against UPS.
The company settled a multimillion-dollar disability discrimination action in 2017, and another religious discrimination action in 2013. “Failure to make a reasonable accommodation is the most common type of religious discrimination in Illinois,” commented Chicago employment law attorney Jonathan Goldman. “But this term confuses many workers. As a result, they give in too quickly and give up too much.”
Most people assume that a phrase like reasonable accommodation means give and take, he explained. But in this context, and as far as the employee is concerned, this process is basically all taking and no giving. If the worker requests a religious accommodation, the employer must grant it unless the request would cause an undue hardship.
For example, assume David works in retail. He is a Christian and he wants Sundays off. His boss is also a Christian, but he feels that the religion does not specifically prohibit working on Sundays. Nevertheless, David’s boss offers to let him off every other Sunday. David might be tempted to take that offer.
But the “not officially recognized” bit is irrelevant. If David’s religious beliefs about Sundays are sincere, the law protects him. In fact, even if David started his own church and embraced certain beliefs, the law would still protect him. It does not matter if the belief was dogmatic or not.
Second, in the “reasonable accommodation” department, David and other workers meet their initial burden by demonstrating their religious beliefs and needs. They do not have to negotiate further unless the employer establishes an undue hardship. Assuming there are other employees who are available to work on Sunday, that defense probably does not apply. That’s true even if the other workers are not as qualified as David. A marginal loss is not the same thing as an undue hardship.
The second form of religious discrimination is decisions that are based, at least in part, on religion.
Typically, these decisions include hiring/firing and promotions/demotions. One would think that employers know the law and would not engage in this activity, but it happens often. For example, an employer could refuse to hire a woman who wears a hijab or give a woman a promotion on the condition that she begin attending church.
A few religious discrimination cases involve employee harassment. If that happens, the employer has a duty to promptly and thoroughly investigate the matter, and then take appropriate action based on the investigation’s results. A breakdown in any phase could give rise to a legal claim.