Are You Accommodating Your Religious or Disabled Employees?

In the modern workplace, we are fortunate to embrace diversity in many forms. In all likelihood, your company or organization employs individuals of many different backgrounds and abilities. At times, these differences may require what is known as an accommodation–a change in the work environment (or in the way things are usually done) that enables an employee to perform the duties of his or her job while respecting the employee’s disability or religious beliefs or practices.

Accommodating an individual with a disability or a sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance is more than just good management; it’s the law. The federal Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, protects qualified individuals with disabilities from discrimination by employers with 15 or more employees in all aspects of employment, including hiring, firing, promotions, pay, and benefits. It also requires covered employers to provide reasonable accommodation to an employee with a disability, unless that accommodation would result in undue hardship to the employer’s operations. Small employers may be subject to similar requirements under state law, so be sure to familiarize yourself with any state-specific nondiscrimination laws that may apply.

Also on the federal level, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination in the workplace by employers with 15 or more employees on the basis of an individual’s religion (or lack of religious belief), and requires covered employers to reasonably accommodate an employee whose sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance conflicts with a work requirement, unless doing so would impose an undue hardship on the business. Again, it is important to comply with any state-specific religious nondiscrimination laws that may apply to smaller employers.

Let’s talk for a moment about the term “reasonable accommodation.” According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency responsible for enforcing the ADA and Title VII, a modification or adjustment is reasonable if it appears to be “feasible” or “plausible.” An accommodation also must be effective in enabling the individual to perform the essential functions of the job and to enjoy the benefits and privileges of employment.

Under the ADA, reasonable accommodations for a disability may include such things as making existing facilities accessible; job restructuring; part-time or modified work schedules; acquiring or modifying equipment; changing tests, training materials, or policies; providing qualified readers or interpreters; and reassignment to a vacant position. This can include such things as assisted reading devices for employees with low vision; stools or seating for employees who become fatigued; or installation of TTY devices for the hearing impaired.

Reasonable accommodations for religious practice might include allowing flexible schedules to enable religious observance; changing an employee’s job tasks if a particular belief conflicts with a task; making exceptions to dress and grooming rules; allowing the use of work facilities for religious observances; and accommodating religious expression in the workplace.

Now let’s discuss the phrase “undue hardship.” The EEOC applies a different standard for undue hardship under the ADA than for religious accommodation. In general, for disability accommodations, undue hardship means significant difficulty or expense. Undue hardship refers not only to financial difficulty, but to reasonable accommodations that are unduly extensive, substantial, or disruptive, or those that would fundamentally alter the nature or operation of the business. An employer must assess on a case-by-case basis whether a particular reasonable accommodation would cause undue hardship.

Under Title VII, the undue hardship defense to providing religious accommodation requires a showing that the proposed accommodation in a particular case poses a “more than de minimis” cost or burden. Costs to be considered include not only direct monetary costs but also the burden on the conduct of the employer’s business. For example, courts have found undue hardship where the accommodation diminishes efficiency in other jobs, infringes on other employees’ job rights or benefits, impairs workplace safety, or causes co-workers to carry the accommodated employee’s share of potentially hazardous or burdensome work.

While each case is unique, employees may request an ADA or religious accommodation at any time during the employment process. No special language is needed, and the request need not be in writing–a conversation will suffice. The manager or employer should respond promptly, and engage the employee in an informal dialogue where the needs and request are discussed. In certain instances the employer may need to request more information from the employee, such as details about religious observances or reasonable documentation when the employee’s disability or the need for accommodation is not obvious.

In most cases, from both a legal and managerial standpoint, it is well worth an employer’s effort to attempt to accommodate an employee, as most accommodations are low-cost and yield considerable benefits. In fact, according to the Job Accommodation Network, more than half of all accommodations for disability cost nothing, and of those that do cost money, the typical one-time expenditure is $500.

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