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Swapping Shifts to Accommodate Religion

by The Human Equation, Inc. on 4/3/2008
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Some of my employees have voluntarily "swapped" shifts with their coworkers because of religious commitments. Can such voluntary "swaps" be considered reasonable accommodations in response to employees' requests for religious accommodations under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act?

Yes. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII), which generally applies to employers with 15 or more employees, makes it an unlawful employment practice for an employer to discriminate against an employee (or prospective employee) on the basis of such employee's religion. Unless the accommodation places an undue hardship on the employer, Title VII requires that an employer provide an employee with a reasonable accommodation for the employee's religious observances. Unfortunately, as the Supreme Court has observed, Title VII provides no guidance for determining the degree of accommodation that is required of an employer because, although an employer's obligation to make a reasonable accommodation is clear, the precise reach of that obligation has never been spelled out by Congress.

Such imprecision may be even more problematic in the context of religious accommodation since, as one court has noted, "this is not an area for absolutes [because] religion does not exist in a vacuum in the workplace." Nevertheless, employers seeking guidance in this area may look to the regulations interpreting Title VII, which provide that the use of "voluntary swaps" may constitute a reasonable accommodation for an employee's religious observances. In addition to merely allowing voluntary swaps, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission suggests that employers: publicize policies regarding accommodation and voluntary swaps; promote an atmosphere in which such swaps are favorably regarded; and provide a central file (e.g., a bulletin board) for employees seeking voluntary swaps with other employees. However, given the uncertainty surrounding an employer's responsibilities to provide reasonable accommodations, employers facing such issues should seriously consider consulting a licensed professional.

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