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When Prayer Imposes an Undue Hardship


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Fisher

By Chase Fisher

Where’s the beef?
At issue in the case was a class of Somali Muslim production workers at a meatpacking facility who demanded religious accommodations to pray according to their religious beliefs.  Particularly, the production workers demanded the ability to take unscheduled breaks from the production line to pray and to have a break within ten minutes of sunset for an additional prayer time during the month of Ramadan, an Islamic holiday requiring a daytime fast from sunup to sundown.  While the meatpacking facility originally attempted to accommodate some of the requests, such as scheduling an extended meal time to coincide with the sundown prayer time for all employees, the facility ultimately put pen to paper and determined the requests were simply too costly.  After the facility canceled the altered meal break, approximately 80 Somali Muslim employees left the plant and were terminated for their violation of an existing union collective bargaining agreement.

As a result of the religious accommodation fiasco, approximately 168 Somali Muslim employees filed complaints with the EEOC.  The EEOC, in turn, filed suit in the U.S. District Court in Nebraska, alleging the meatpacking company engaged in a pattern or practice of religious discrimination for failing to accommodate the production workers’ prayer requests.

When prayer imposes an undue hardship
To defend against claims of unlawful religious discrimination under Title VII, employers have an escape hatch if they can prove accommodating the request poses an undue hardship.  Employers can take advantage of the ‘undue hardship’ defense by proving one of two facts: 1) the accommodation creates more than a de minimis cost, or 2) the accommodation would impose a greater than de minimis burden on other employees.

Here, the meatpacking plant was able to prove both aspects of the ‘undue hardship’ defense.  First, the plant was able to show additional or extended breaks were extremely costly to the plants.  Specifically, the plant was able to show the average cost of an additional 10 minute break to be $18,180 per plant per day because the absence of the Muslim employees requesting prayer accommodations would force the entire assembly line to come to a stop.

Second, the meatpacking plant established additional breaks would jeopardize food safety and employee safety as the meat would be left out longer and the buildup of meat on the floor would force employees remaining on the line to work faster and harder with large equipment.  Thus, the court held in favor of the plant by finding these additional burdens were an undue hardship that did not require the employer to make the requested religious accommodations.  

 

Takeaway
While employers have an undue hardship escape hatch under Title VII, they must still engage in an interactive process with employees to reasonably accommodate religious requests.  This case presents a prime example of an employer who engaged in the interactive process with the employees and ultimately decided not to accommodate their request.  Here, the meatpacking plant took necessary steps to establish an undue hardship defense prior to its refusal to accommodate.  Many employers fail to take these necessary steps to support their positions before it is too late.  Further, each situation is unique and it is strongly recommended that employers seek legal counsel prior to refusing to accommodate requests, as the de minimis cost and/or burden standard is very fact-intensive.

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