What is an Undue Hardship?
Recently, in Groff v. Dejoy, the Third Circuit was asked to decide whether an accommodation for an employee’s religious practices that comes at the expense of other workers is an “undue hardship” for the employer.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion, which is defined very broadly. It includes “all aspects of religious observance and practice, as well as belief.” An employer is obligated to accommodate an employee’s religious observances and practices unless it can demonstrate that it is “unable to reasonably accommodate” them “without undue hardship.”
In Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison, the United States Supreme Court was asked to decide the extent of an employer’s obligation to accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs that prohibited him from working on Saturdays. The employer operated 24-7 and employees were required to work Saturdays on a rotating basis. The employee informed the employer of the conflict between his religious beliefs and the work requirements. The employer was willing to permit the employee to transfer to another shift but the union would not waive seniority provisions in the collective bargaining agreement. When the employee failed to come to work on a Saturday, he was fired for insubordination.
The Supreme Court held that the employer was not obligated to override the seniority system, which would be a breach of the collective bargaining agreement. Nor was the employer required to assign another worker to cover for the employee because doing so would require the employer to pay overtime to the assigned worker. The Supreme Court concluded that requiring the employer “to bear more than a de minimis cost” would be an undue hardship.
In Groff v. Dejoy, the court was asked if it would be an “undue hardship,” if not the employer, but if co-workers were asked “to bear more than a de minimis cost.” The employee, Gerald Groff, a Sunday Sabbath observer, whose religious beliefs dictate that Sunday is reserved for worship and rest, informed his employer that he could not work on Sundays. His employer permitted him to swap Sundays with other employees, but over a sixty week period, the employer was unsuccessful in finding someone to swap with Groff on twenty-four Sundays. Groff did not come to work on those Sundays. He faced discipline and was ultimately fired.
Groff argued that his employer should have exempted him from Sunday work as a reasonable accommodation. But the court rejected that claim because if Groff had been exempted from Sunday work, it would cause “more than a de minimis cost” to his co-workers, who would have to cover more Sundays. A reasonable accommodation cannot include requiring other employees to simply work more of the less desirable schedules.
 Although the Americans With Disabilities Act similarly requires an employee to make a “reasonable accommodation” unless doing so would cause an “undue hardship,” courts have interpreted a “reasonable accommodation” in the ADA context differently than in Title VII context.