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Sabbath And Festival Observance: EEOC On The Warpath

June 19, 2013 | Posted In Business Litigation |

The EEOC brought two federal lawsuits in Bible Belt states claiming religious discrimination due to failure to provide employee time off for Sabbath and Religious Festivals. Last month (March 2013) they settled both quite favorably via Consent Decrees, and issued press releases mphasizing that the law does not permit forcing an employee to choose between her job and her religious obligations.

EEOC v. Senior Living Properties

Senior Living Properties, LLC, owns 35 senior assisted living facilities in Texas. Amanda Spalding, an employee of three-years standing, had been excused from any work on Sundays due to her Christian religious beliefs. Spalding was Dietary Services Manager at one of defendant’s facilities. The defendant employer hired a new administrator, Peggy Scruggs, who refused to abide by this previous arrangement and required Spalding to be available to work on Sundays, even though her normal working hours were Monday to Friday. Scruggs, seemingly adopting the dual role of supervisor and religious authority, told Spalding that God would excuse her from her religious obligation to refrain from work on Sunday because Spalding was working in the healthcare field, and in particular in a 24/7 facility for helpless people. If Spalding didn’t agree she was told: “there’s the door.” Shocked, Spalding walked out, escorted by Security.

Spalding filed a claim with the EEOC which filed suit on her behalf. 1:11-cv-192-C, U.S. District Court, N. D. Texas. The EEOC contended that “requiring an employee to choose between her faith and the job to which she is dedicated is not only ill – advised management, but illegal.” The EEOC further contended that excusing Spalding from work on Sunday’s was a reasonable accommodation given the number of available employees. The defendant asserted that the accommodation would cause undue hardship: meals were necessary 7 days a week for the elderly residents of the facility, not 6 days.

Senior Living settled the case for $42,000 via the terms of a Consent Decree dated March 15, 2013 which required that the company: 1) amend its written antidiscrimination policy to provide that the employer must provide reasonable accommodations to employees based upon their religious beliefs, including Sabbath restrictions; 2) conduct three years of annual training to employees concerning their protections against religious discrimination in the workplace and their right to reasonable accommodation; and 3) post this new antidiscrimination policy for five years at Senior living’s corporate headquarters as well as at the particular facility in Sweetwater, Texas
where Spalding was employed.

EEOC v Ozarks Electric Cooperative Corp.

Via a consent decree entered and approved March 25, 2013, Ozarks Electric, a major electric cooperative in Fayetteville, Ark. agreed to pay $95,000 to a former employee and provide prospective relief to settle a religious discrimination lawsuit brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. EEOC vs. Ozarks Electric, U.S. District Court, W. D. Ark, 5:12- cv- 5014 (W.D. Ark).

Naomi Solis was both a capable employee and long-time faithful member of the Fayetteville East Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses. One of the sincerely held tenants of her faith was that she must attend a Jehovah’s Witness’ convention each year. Solis requested a day off on Friday, June 4, 2010 to attend the Annual Convention. Ozark responded that if she did not report to work on June 4, that she need not report back to work on Monday, June 7. Solis attended the religious convention nonetheless, and lost her job.

Ozark contended that they offered a reasonable accommodation to Ms. Solis’ religious convictions through a generous paid time-off system. Jehovah’s Witnesses Annual Conventions are provided at many locations and at various times throughout the year. The educational material covered is the same. Congregants are assigned by their local Congregation to a particular convention. It is permissible to make schedule changes with the religious authorities, which might have allowed Solis to coordinate her time off with the convention. However, Solis believed that it would be disobedient of her to attempt to do so, even though it appears she had made scheduling changes for the Convention in past years.

With cross-motions for summary judgment pending in Bible Belt jurisdiction, Ozark threw in the towel and entered a consent decree which provided not only for $95,000 in back pay to Solis and a neutral employment reference, but also a requirement that Ozark create and enforce a written policy acceptable to the EEOC to prevent any further occurrences of religious discrimination. This policy must include an internal appeal system within the defendant corporation as well as posted signs, mandatory education for employees concerning religious discrimination and the remedies available to them, and the hiring of an expert in religious discrimination to teach the course as well as other relief.

Summary

This case, in conjunction with EEOC v Senior Living, decided last week in federal court in Texas, indicates that the EEOC is taking a hard line on Sabbath observances and other religious holidays and that employers should bend over backward to prevent employees from “having to choose between their religion and their work ….” The employer defense of “undue hardship” for excused-religious holidays is being narrowly construed by the EEOC. Clearly the jurisdictions, Texas and Arkansas, were chosen by the EEOC to make its point.

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