Former U.S. Postal employee Gerald Groff sued his employer, claiming it failed to provide him a reasonable accommodation for his religious beliefs. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to employees whose sincerely held religious beliefs conflict with a work rule unless doing so would create an undue hardship.
The Third Circuit affirmed a lower court ruling that the exemption from Sunday work caused an undue hardship on USPS.
Groff’s religious beliefs dictated that he observe the Sabbath on Sunday, thus reserving Sundays for worship and rest, not work.
Groff worked as a rural carrier associate (RCA), providing coverage for absent employees. The job was akin to an “on-call” position, and he was expected to work as needed. At the time of Groff’s employment, there was a shortage of RCAs in his region.
USPS began delivering Sunday packages for Amazon in 2013, a year after Groff was hired. According to the case, “The success of Amazon Sunday delivery was critical to USPS.”
When Groff informed his employer he would not be reporting to work on Sundays, USPS offered several proposed accommodations to include Groff coming to work on Sundays after morning services or seeking out others to take his shift. During the 2017 peak season, other employees had to work all Sunday shifts. Groff “acknowledged that his fellow RCA had to bear the burden of Amazon Sundays alone during the 2017 peak season,” according to the case.
According to the case, “To accommodate Groff during the 2018 peak season, the Holtwood Postmaster again attempted to find coverage for each Sunday that Groff was scheduled to work. The Holtwood Postmaster described finding coverage for Groff as ‘not always easy, . . . time consuming, and [that] it added to [his] workload and those of other postmasters.’”
The impact of Groff not working Sundays also caused the postmaster himself to deliver mail on Sundays. USPS also alleged, “Groff’s refusal to report on Sundays created a ‘tense atmosphere among the other RCAs, as they had to work more Sundays to cover Groff’s absences as well as ‘resentment toward management.’”
Other carriers were called into work more frequently due to Groff’s absences, which resulted in “other employees ‘do[ing] more than their share of burdensome work,’ and other carriers had to deliver more mail than they otherwise would have on Sundays.
All of this understandably caused morale problems.
On more than 20 Sundays, Groff didn’t work, and no coworker could swap shifts with him. Groff was disciplined and then resigned.
In dismissing the lawsuit, the District Court held that USPS offered reasonable accommodations to include shift swaps despite the fact that Groff was “not happy” with it. The court found that Groff working no Sundays was an undue hardship, in part because “It required the only other RCA to work ‘every single Sunday without a break.’”
The appellate court took a slightly different view, concluding that the accommodation offered to Groff was not reasonable because it did not eliminate the conflict. Of the 24 Sundays he was scheduled to work, USPS could not find a volunteer and, therefore, Groff was disciplined. The appellate court held, “Thus, even though shift swapping can be a reasonable means of accommodating a conflicting religious practice, here it did not constitute an ‘accommodation’ as contemplated by Title VII because it did not successfully eliminate the conflict.”
However, the court concluded the accommodation was an undue hardship, stating, “An employer is not required ‘to accommodate at all costs.” It stated, “An ‘undue hardship’ is one that results in more than a de minimis cost to the employer.”
The court held, “Groff’s proposed accommodation of being exempted from Sunday work would cause an undue hardship. Exempting Groff from working on Sundays caused more than a de minimis cost on USPS because it actually imposed on his coworkers, disrupted the workplace and workflow, and diminished employee morale” at the facilities. The court noted that other employees had to cover his shifts and “give up their family time, their ability to attend church services if they would have liked to,” and these additional demands “created a tense atmosphere with the other RCAs.”
The court also noted the impact the absences had on “operations and morale,” so much so that another employee filed a grievance over delivering extra mail.
Employers need to consider every request for a religious accommodation and engage in the interactive discussion to determine if accommodations can be provided. Demonstrating a good faith effort to accommodate employees is essential, but the accommodation provided to the employee should not negatively impact other workers or operations.