Tag Archives: employment accomodations

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.

Telecommuting Gets a Second Look As Accommodation of Disabled

Submitted by Terry Fox

Since the dawn of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, employees have argued that they should be able to work from home.  That argument has been soundly and routinely rejected by the courts.  However, with the adoption of amendments in 2008, focus has shifted from whether the disability was covered to whether there has been attempted accommodation. 

The United States District Court for the Southern District of Ohio ruled on July 30, 2012, that a request for telecommuting was not per se unreasonable. Core v. Champaign County Board of County Commissions, Ca.No. 3:11-cv-166.  In the case, a county employee in a jobs and families services office started experiencing severe asthma symptoms in 2008 when working close to other employees.  She attributed the breathing difficulty to others wearing Japanese Cherry Blossom perfume.  Once that issue was raised, Ms. Core’s co-workers began mocking her on Facebook posts and apparently intentionally wore that perfume resulting in her hospitalization.

Following the hospitalization, Ms. Core’s lawyer and the county’s lawyer attempted to negotiate a reasonable accommodation. Telecommuting was suggested.  The county refused and the employee sued. The court reviewed the employee’s complaint allegation that telecommuting would be a reasonable accommodation and did not reject it as legally unreasonable.  The Core court relied on language from the case of Vande Zande v. Wisconsin, 44 F.3d 538 (7th Cir. 1995), wherein the court noted it would take a very extraordinary case to create a triable issue of an employer’s refusal to let an employee work at home.  The court in Vande Zande predicted that sometime in the future technological advances would make it practical for employees to work from home.  Apparently, that time is now here, because the court in Ms. Core’s case let the matter go forward for determination by a jury. 

The “take away” from the Core v. Champaign County Board case is that employers will face mounting challenges from employees who claim to be disabled and would like to work from home.  Employers should be very careful in drafting job descriptions to specify factors requiring appearance within a work setting, like the need to work closely with others and interact face-to-face with customers, to maximize defensibility when an employee seeks to telecommute to accommodate a claimed disability.

Note: If you would like to know more about setting appropriate policies for telecommuters, please see our previous post “Developing the Remote Workforce” by Julie Proscia.

Reminder, Work with Employees who Request Accommodations

Contributed by Sara Zorich

In, United States EEOC v. AutoZone, Inc., the district court upheld a jury verdict, including punitive damages, concluding that Autozone had violated the American’s with Disabilities Act (ADA) by forcing an employee with a back injury to mop the store’s floor.  The court concluded that there was sufficient evidence to support the jury’s finding that mopping the store floor was not an essential function of the “parts sales manager” position because the time spent performing the task was marginal, routine and required unskilled labor.  Therefore, AutoZone violated the ADA by not providing a reasonable accommodation to the employee and not having another employee mop the floor during the employee’s shift.

The jury’s punitive damages finding was upheld because there was sufficient evidence for the jury to conclude that AutoZone’s good faith defense to the punitive damages claim was unpersuasive based on the fact that AutoZone did not have an anti-discrimination policy and the employee’s managers required the employee to mop the floor even after receiving notification from his doctor requesting that the employee be relieved from mopping.

As a reminder, employers should work with employees who request accommodations in order to assess the requests of the employee as well as the company’s ability to grant the employee’s requests.  This should be an interactive process between the company and the employee.  Employers should also review job descriptions periodically to assess the essential job functions stated in each job description.