Category Archives: employee accommodations

Zap! It’s the Devil – No Really: Accommodating Religious Beliefs

Contributed by Beverly Alfon, June 21, 2017

Imagine that in order to increase time and attendance record accuracy and efficiency, you have invested in a new biometric time clock system. This makes good business sense and overall, it is a straightforward issue…until HR tells you that an employee has refused to use the time clock for religious reasons.

34405947 - man reading the definition of faith

Man reading the definition of faith on a computer screen

In U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Consol Energy, Inc., (4th Cir. June 12, 2017), a coal mine worker who was a practicing evangelical Christian, refused to use a hand scanner time clock because he believed that it would “mark” him with the sign of the Antichrist. The employee offered to verbally report his time in or out, or to use a conventional punch clock. The employer responded with a letter from the scanner manufacturer indicating that because the Bible only refers to the “Mark of the Beast” as associated only with the right hand or forehead, use of the left hand in the scanner should not be of concern. The employer told the employee to use his left hand for the scanner. In response, the employee resigned and filed an Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC) charge.

Notably, the employer was already accommodating two other employees who had hand injuries.  They were allowed to enter their employee identification numbers into a keypad – instead of using the scanner. The EEOC brought an enforcement action against the coal mine for failure to accommodate the employee’s religious beliefs in violation of Title VII and construction discharge.  At trial, the EEOC and employee won. The award was $150,000 in damages, plus $436,860 in front pay, back pay and lost benefits. The coal mine appealed the decision.

The coal mine argued that there was no conflict between the employee’s religious beliefs and the requirement that he use the hand scanner system, especially in light of the employee’s admission that even his pastor did not believe that use of the hand scanner would produce a physical mark.    However, the appellate court found it significant that the employee clearly laid out his religious objection to using the system overall and there was no dispute that his beliefs were sincere. The court reasoned that it is not the employer’s place to “question the correctness or even the plausibility of [the plaintiff’s] religious understandings,” and affirmed the lower court verdict and findings.

Bottom line:  This case serves as a reminder that an employer cannot escape the requirement to accommodate simply because it thinks that an employee’s religious belief is nonsensical or mistaken. If there is enough evidence to show that the employee sincerely holds a religious belief that contradicts job requirements, an employer should consider an accommodation.

Properly Accommodating Pregnant Employees in Hazardous Workplaces

Contributed by Steven Jados, March 2, 2017

The settlement of a recent pregnancy discrimination lawsuit brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) against RTG Furniture Corp., provides a valuable reminder to employers that even well-intentioned limitations placed on pregnant employees are likely to violate Title VII and, where applicable, state laws that prohibit pregnancy discrimination.

pregnant-employeeAccording to the EEOC’s allegations in the lawsuit, within days of being hired, a new employee informed RTG that she was pregnant, but that she had no work restrictions and could perform all aspects of the job. The job required the employee to use certain chemicals to repair furniture. The same day the employee disclosed her pregnancy, RTG management allegedly met with her and confirmed that she was pregnant. During that same meeting, a manager allegedly showed the employee the can of a chemical used in the workplace, and discussed the warning written on the can, which essentially stated that the contents could pose a danger to pregnant women and their unborn children. At the conclusion of that discussion, RTG allegedly terminated the new employee.

Now, it is important to remember that allegations in an EEOC lawsuit are, of course, not necessarily true—and the fact that the case settled, likewise, does not mean the EEOC’s allegations are the truth. Nevertheless, this case provides the useful instruction that employers generally cannot terminate pregnant employees or refuse to hire pregnant applicants, even if the job involves exposure to hazards that are particularly dangerous with respect to pregnancy.

This case also provides the opportunity to discuss the proper approach for employers concerned about exposing pregnant employees to potentially hazardous workplace conditions. Step one, of course, is: don’t terminate employees just because they are pregnant. Instead, employers concerned about exposing pregnant employees to harmful workplace conditions should have policies in place—in employee handbooks, for example—that inform employees, upon hire or even earlier, of the potential risks of the job. And if those risks are greater for pregnant employees, the policies should make clear that pregnant employees should feel free to request accommodations or otherwise bring any questions or concerns to human resources or other appropriate members of management.  Additionally, when an employee informs the company that she is pregnant, the company should take that opportunity to reiterate, in writing, the particular risks of the work environment, and remind the employee of her right to request a pregnancy-related accommodation.

If a pregnant employee wishes to continue doing her job, despite knowing and assuming whatever risks there may be, employers generally do not have the right to take any action that would adversely affect the employee’s job. Moreover, it is especially important for employers to recognize that in addition to federal law protections, there may also be state and local laws that provide additional protections or accommodation requirements for pregnant employees and applicants.

Bearing all of that in mind, employers concerned about exposing pregnant employees to workplace hazards or their obligations to accommodate a pregnant employee should consult with experienced labor and employment counsel to evaluate the hazards in the workplace, and ensure that all policies and notices to pregnant employees are drafted appropriately, and communicated properly.