Does my employer have to allow me to swap shifts so I can observe my Sabbath?

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Question:

I work for an electronics chain as a sales assistant. Everyone has to work one weekend day, as that's when our store is busiest. I had been working a Sunday through Thursday shift, but my manager just told me that I'll be switching to a Tuesday through Saturday shift next month. The problem is that Saturday is my Sabbath day. My religious beliefs require me to refrain from working and other worldly pursuits on that day. One of my coworkers is willing to switch shifts with me, but our manager won't allow it. She said that everyone would want to change their schedules, and it would be too much of a hassle. Do I have any rights here? 

Answer:

You have the right to a reasonable accommodation to allow you to practice your religion. Despite what your manager may think, "too much of a hassle" is not a legal defense to this requirement. 

Under Title VII, the federal law that prohibits discrimination against employees and applicants based on their religion (among other things), employers have an obligation to accommodate their employees' religious practices. The purpose of this requirement is to avoid forcing employees to choose between their job and their religious beliefs. This obligation isn't absolute, however: If the accommodation would pose an undue hardship, the employer doesn't have to provide it.

In the context of religious discrimination, an undue hardship is anything more than a minimal burden. From a cost perspective, an accommodation that requires only some additional administrative expenses (such as those associated with rescheduling) or the occasional additional payment of overtime will not pose an undue hardship. However, an employer probably cannot be required to pay more than these occasional costs. For example, it would be an undue hardship for an employer to have to hire another employee or regularly pay overtime to accommodate an employee's religious practices.

Even an inexpensive or free accommodation might create an undue hardship. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency that enforces Title VII, has said that an accommodation creates undue hardship if it infringes on the rights of other employees, affects workplace safety, requires coworkers to take on a larger share of unpleasant or hazardous work, or diminishes efficiency in the workplace. 

In your situation, however, the burden to your employer and your coworkers is minimal. Your coworker is willing to swap shifts with you, so other employees are not being deprived of their rights. Although your employer would not be obligated to force an unwilling coworker to make this switch, voluntary swaps don't create an undue hardship. And the costs associated with the switch would not go beyond a quick payroll change. 

Some employers mistakenly feel, as your manager seems to, that they can't make an exception to the rules. However, this is sometimes just what the law requires. An accommodation is a change to the way things are usually done. Other employees are not entitled to the same leeway -- and don't have to be allowed to swap shifts -- unless they have a legal right to an accommodation as well. 

Talk to your manager and explain that you are requesting an accommodation for your religious observance. If your manager won't make the change, take it up with your company's human resources department. 

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