Employers are not Required to Continuously Rearrange Shifts to Accommodate Workers’ Religious Needs

Employers recently received a favorable ruling when a federal district court in Wisconsin held that a retail store was not required to re-arrange shifts to accommodate an applicant’s religious beliefs.

In Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Walmart Stores East LP and Walmart, Inc., the plaintiff applied for a salaried assistant manager position at a Walmart store. After being offered the position, the plaintiff disclosed for the first time that he was a Seventh Day Adventist, and due to his faith, he would not be able to work any Saturdays until after sundown. On average, assistant managers at the store worked roughly 60 percent of all Saturdays, which were the store’s busiest days. As such, Walmart denied the plaintiff’s request for a religious accommodation, claiming it would cause an undue burden, and withdrew its offer of employment. Nonetheless, the store offered to help the plaintiff apply for other, non-salaried supervisory positions that would have paid less, but would have provided the opportunity for overtime pay and would not have required work on Saturdays.

The plaintiff filed suit in the Western District of Wisconsin, alleging that Walmart violated Title VII by refusing to accommodate his religious needs and by retaliating against him when it withdrew his employment offer. However, when Walmart moved for summary judgment, the court held that an offer to help an employee find another position that does not require Sabbath work is a reasonable accommodation, even if the alternate position pays less. The court also noted that the plaintiff failed to apply for the alternate positions or explore any other openings with the human resources manager. Thus, the plaintiff failed to make a good faith effort to cooperate with Walmart in finding a reasonable accommodation. Lastly, the court agreed with Walmart that re-arranging work schedules every week for the plaintiff would pose an undue burden. “Title VII does not require employers to deny the shift preferences of some employees in order to favor the religious needs of others.” Accordingly, the court entered summary judgment in Walmart’s favor.

This case provides several useful reminders for businesses with employees who work variable shifts. Employers are not required to accommodate employees in exactly the way the employee would like to be accommodated (both in the context of religion and disabilities). Rather, any reasonable accommodation is sufficient, even if it is not the one the employee prefers. Also, employees are obligated to engage with the employer to find a reasonable accommodation and failure to do so can undercut a discrimination claim. Employers should keep these principles in mind when responding to accommodation requests and consult with counsel as needed.

If you have any questions about workplace discrimination laws or reasonable accommodations, contact your regular Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr LLP labor and employment attorney.