EEOC Loses Religious Accommodation Suit

Tuesday, October 22, 2013
Title VII provides that employers are required to accommodate employees’ religious practices unless to do so would pose an undue hardship. An employer can establish the affirmative defense of undue hardship by showing the requested accommodation would cause more than a de minimis, or minimal, burden.   In EEOC v. JBS USA, LLC, 8:10-CV-318 (D.Neb. Oct. 11, 2013), Chief Judge Laurie Smith Camp entered judgment for the employer, finding that it established the affirmative defense of undue hardship since “a religious accommodation for Muslim employees, within the parameters requested [by the EEOC], would have caused more than a de minimis burden on JBS [the employer] and on its non-Muslim employees.”  

JBS operates beef processing facilities in several states, including Grand Island, Nebraska. In 2007, about 100 Somali Muslim employees in that location took part in a protest against JBS’s refusal to allow them to use their “informal breaks” (typically reserved for bathroom breaks) to pray.  Instead the company required them to pray during their regularly scheduled breaks. Shortly thereafter, JBS also refused to change all employees’ meal break times during Ramadan to accommodate its Muslim employees’ prayer schedule and to shorten the overall workday with a corresponding decrease in pay for all employees.  The EEOC sued JBS alleging that the company violated Title VII by engaging in a pattern or practice of failing to reasonably accommodate the religious practices of Muslim employees in that it failed to: (1) allow Muslim employees to take unscheduled breaks to pray; and/or (2) move the meal break during the remainder of Ramadan 2008 to a time that coincided closely with such employees’ sunset prayer time. 

In reaching her decision, Judge Camp noted that an employer can establish an undue hardship in two ways: (1) the accommodation creates more than a de minimis cost to the employer; or (2) the accommodation would have caused more than a de minimis imposition on co-workers. Judge Camp held that the two accommodations sought by the Muslim employees, permission to take unscheduled breaks during the day to pray and to move the meal break period during Ramadan and shorten everyone’s work shifts, would have resulted in  an undue hardship for JBS under either theory. 

With respect to the request for unscheduled prayer breaks, Judge Camp found that granting such a request would have imposed a greater than de minimis burden on JBS and on the non-Muslim employees. The judge hypothesized that if the production lines were not shut down completely during these break times, the remaining workers would have to work harder and at dangerous speeds. Similarly, if the lines were merely “stopped or slowed,” the raw meat might be exposed to air and bacteria for a prolonged time, increasing the risk of contamination.  Such an accommodation would also have a negative impact on operational efficiency (e.g. the non-Muslim employees would have to work quicker, and thus, would not be able to meet quality specifications) and would also create a substantial financial burden based on the decrease in production and decreased employee morale if non-Muslims were forced to work harder and faster to cover for the Muslim employees taking extra breaks. 

With respect to the requested accommodation of moving all employees’ meal break periods to coincide with the sunset prayer time during Ramadan, Judge Camp ruled that this too created an undue hardship since a 30-minute mass break would result in cattle being left longer than a safe amount of time, decreasing its value and causing JBS to incur a financial loss.  Also, a 30-minute mass break would overwhelm JBS’s infrastructure given that its locker rooms, restrooms, and other facilities were not large enough to accommodate the large influx of employees that such a mass break would cause. Furthermore, Judge Camp held that JBS established greater than a de minimis imposition on its non-Muslim employees as this proposed accommodation would decrease their compensation and negatively impact their work schedules. 
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