Failure to accommodate religious practices can be an expensive lesson.

As an employer, you are likely aware that Title VII protects employees from discrimination based on their religion, meaning an employer cannot treat an employee differently or negatively because of their religion.  But the law also requires employers to reasonably accommodate an employee whose sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance conflicts with a work requirement, unless doing so would pose an undue hardship (not just a minor hardship).

You may have seen the recent attention-grabbing headlines about a former hotel housekeeper awarded $21.5 million in damages in the case of Jean Pierre v. Park Hotels, Inc. after finding she suffered religious discrimination and retaliation in violations of Title VII.  While the plaintiff will not see all that money due to the Title VII damage caps, it is still an expensive lesson and employers can learn from the missteps of the hotel defendant. 

In that case, the plaintiff, Marie Jean Pierre, was a member of the Soldiers of Christ Church.  At the start of her employment in 2006, she told her employer that she needed Sundays off from work due to her religious beliefs. Her employer accommodated her for approximately nine years.  However, in 2015, her employer began scheduling her on Sundays.  She brought in a letter from her pastor to support her request for Sundays off as a religious accommodation.  For several weeks, her employer continued to schedule Pierre on Sundays, but allowed her to switch shifts with coworkers so she did not actually work on Sundays.  Eventually, Pierre’s supervisor insisted that she start working on Sundays.  When she refused to show up for her scheduled Sunday shifts, she was terminated for unexcused absences, among other alleged policy violations.  As already discussed, a jury found in Pierre’s favor and awarded her significant damages.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), the federal agency responsible for enforcing Title VII, offers a framework of “best practices” for accommodating an employee’s religious beliefs, which employers can look to for guidance. The EEOC recommends employers train their managers on how to recognize religious accommodation requests from employees and develop internal procedures for processing those requests.  In regard to schedule adjustments, the EEOC encourages employers to work with employees who need an adjustment to their work schedule to accommodate their religious practices and to consider adopting flexible leave and scheduling policies.  A suggested approach by the EEOC includes employers facilitating, encouraging, and allowing schedule swaps among similarly qualified employees.

So, what could the employer in the Pierre case have done differently?  The employer could have continued to schedule Pierre off work on Sundays.  The fact that the employer made that accommodation for almost nine years likely shows it was not an “undue burden” for the employer to continue the practice.  The employer also could have facilitated and allowed schedule swaps as suggested by the EEOC guidance.  If you have any specific questions about accommodating an employee’s request for a religious accommodation, you should consult with an experienced employment attorney.