When Laws Collide: Religious Beliefs & Safety Concerns in the Workplace
As they arrived at work on a sunny Monday morning in June, Muslim employees were asked to change their clothing to comply with a new dress code policy that banned dresses longer than knee-length. The southern Minnesota food manufacturing company had changed its policy after an employee’s floor-length skirt was caught in a boot washer machine. About ten of the women and about 20 Muslim men left work, saying the new dress code conflicted with their religious beliefs. Claims are being filed with several advocacy organizations.
What’s an employer to do when protected religious beliefs clash with safety concerns and related government regulations? Increasingly, organizations are wrestling with these competing obligations, and finding themselves caught between the proverbial “rock and a hard place.”
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment discrimination based on religion and requires reasonable accommodation for an employee’s religious beliefs or practices, unless doing so would cause an undue hardship on the operations of the employer’s business.
So what is an undue hardship? For religious accommodation purposes, it is anything that causes more than a minimal burden on the operations of the employer’s business. An accommodation may cause undue hardship if it is costly, compromises workplace safety, decreases workplace efficiency, infringes on the rights of other employees, or requires other employees to do more than their share of potentially hazardous or burdensome work.
Will exempting these Muslim employees from the new dress code policy pose an undue hardship on the employer? Using a boot washer (a floor machine that washes footwear) is required at the food manufacturing facility for plant sanitary guidelines. While the woman wasn’t injured when her dress was caught in the machine, nearby employees left their work areas to help her free herself, and management changed the policy specifically to prevent further incidents. Whether accommodating these employees’ religious beliefs would compromise safety, decrease workplace efficiency, or infringe on the rights of others will ultimately be determined by the courts.
When responding to a reasonable accommodation request, employers should remember these four things. First, “religious beliefs” are interpreted broadly under Title VII, protecting people who belong to traditional, organized religions as well as those who have sincerely held non-traditional religious, ethical, or moral beliefs. Second, when an accommodation is requested, the employer and employee should together discuss both the conflict as well as possible accommodations. Next, the employer must determine if the proposed accommodations will result in an undue hardship. Finally, absent undue hardship, the employer should make an accommodation that eliminates the conflict.
While an employer can’t prevent an employee from asserting his or her legal rights, by working with the employee and carefully considering all the options, an employer can both defend its actions and provide a respectful workplace for its employees.
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