AN EMPLOYER’S DUTY TO ACCOMMODATE NOT SO-COMMON RELIGIOUS PRACTICES

Q.  An employee has requested that the company give her an accommodation due to a religious practice I have never heard of. Do we have to comply with this request?

A.  Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects employees and applicants against religious discrimination and requires that an employer accommodate an individual’s religious practices unless doing so would create an undue hardship on the employer. Typically, employers are asked to accommodate more mainstream religions by way of scheduling accommodations or dress. However, lesser known religious practices also must be accommodated if the employee can establish a sincerely-held belief in the religious practice and that the accommodation would not impose an undue hardship on the company.

Recently, the United States District Court for Western District of Pennsylvania, as well as the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, have addressed accommodating the religious practice known as the “mark of the devil” or the “mark of the beast.” In both instances, the Courts held that the employee’s allegations were sufficient to establish a sincerely- held belief in the religious practice.

In Kaite v. Altoona Student Transp., Inc., the employee worked as a school bus driver and refused to have fingerprints taken because she believed that fingerprinting was the “mark of the devil” and if she submitted to it she would not get into heaven.  The employee asked for an accommodation in the form of a different type of background check that did not include fingerprinting.  The employer refused and terminated the employee’s employment for failing to comply with the State’s background check law.

The United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania rejected the employer’s attempt to dismiss the case, holding that, at least at the motion to dismiss stage, the employee had sufficiently alleged a prima facie case of religious discrimination.

To establish a prima face case, the employee must show: (1) she holds a sincere religious belief that conflicts with a job requirement; (2) she informed her employer of the conflict; and (3) she was disciplined for failing to comply with the conflicting requirement.  Once the employee establishes a prima facie case, the employer then has the burden to prove either that it reasonably accommodated the plaintiff or that it was unable to do so without “undue hardship.”  Here, the employee stated that (i) she had a sincere religious belief that being fingerprinted constituted the “mark of the devil” and would prevent her from going to heaven; (ii) this belief conflicted with her job requirement that she undergo a background check; (iii) the employer was aware of her sincerely-held religious belief; and (iv) the employee subsequently was terminated for failing to comply with the fingerprinting requirement. This was enough to overcome a motion to dismiss.

Similarly, in EEOC v. Consol Energy, Inc., the employer implemented a biometric hand-scanner system for the purpose of requiring employees to check in and out of work.  The employee refused to use the a scanner because of his religious belief that the use of the scanner was the “mark of the beast.”  The employer refused to accommodate the employee’s religious belief, although the employer accommodated others who could not use the hand scanner for non-religious purposes.  The EEOC brought suit on the employee’s behalf, which went to trial.  The jury returned a verdict for the employee totaling $586,860.00 ($150,000 in compensatory damages and $436,860.74 in front and back pay and lost benefits).  The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the District Court’s ruling denying the employer’s motion for a new trial and motion for judgment.

Both of the cases illustrate an employer’s need to be tolerant in accommodating all religious practices, not only those that are considered more mainstream. Employers should remember that demonstrating a sincerely-held belief is typically a “low bar,” and most employees likely will be able to establish this element of their claim.

Moreover, these cases serve as a reminder that, when making determinations regarding accommodating religious practices, the company should:

  • Review whether it has made exceptions for non-religious reasons; and
  • Consider the actual hardship to the employer in accommodating the employee’s request.

Kali T. Wellington-James

EEOC’s Wellness Program Rules in Doubt

Q.  Are the EEOC’s Wellness Program rules still valid?

A.  The ADA and the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act both permit an employer to seek medical information as part of a wellness program if the employee participates voluntarily.  However, neither statute defines the term “voluntary.”

Effective January 2017, the EEOC issued rules allowing incentives of up to 30 percent of the cost of  coverage for employees participating in a health-contingent wellness program, in which the participant receives an award for satisfying a health-related factor.  These rules aligned the EEOC’s position with the regulations under the  Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), such that employers were able to rely on the 30 percent incentive limit to comply with HIPAA, the ADA and GINA.

In October 2016, AARP filed a lawsuit against the EEOC, arguing that the EEOC’s 30 percent incentive rendered wellness programs involuntary because employees would feel coerced to participate in wellness programs and to disclose medical information to avoid losing the benefit of the incentive.  The court concluded that the EEOC did not offer a reasoned explanation for its decision to construe the term “voluntary” to permit employers to offer incentives of up to 30 percent for participation in wellness programs.

For more information about this important case, please click here.

 

Uber Sex Harassment Scandal Is Sobering Reminder of the Costs of Ignoring Complaints

Uber made headlines last week when Susan Fowler, a former engineer, claimed that she was harassed by her direct supervisor and her complaints were ignored by the human resources department. Uber took another hit a few days later when a recently-hired executive resigned amidst allegations that he had harassed employees at his former company.

How can you prevent your company from becoming the next media story?

There are several takeaways from the Uber incidents:

  1.  Distribute a written policy prohibiting harassment based on sex and other protected categories. The policy should clearly explain the legal definition of harassment, provide examples of conduct deemed offensive, provide alternative avenues for an employee to lodge a complaint, explain the investigation process, and promise absolute protection against retaliation for good faith complaints of harassment.
  2. Provide harassment prevention training at regular intervals.  Not only is such     training crucial to ensuring that employees understand their rights and obligations, but it also may provide an affirmative defense if an employee sues after failing to make an internal complaint.
  3. Train supervisors on their responsibilities to lead by example.  Supervisors need to be taught how to recognize harassment and what to do if they witness or receive a complaint about inappropriate conduct in the workplace.
  4. Take all complaints of harassment seriously and perform a prompt and thorough investigation.  Analyze emails and text messages as part of your investigation.  Ms. Fowler said that the multiple emails that she forwarded to HR were ignored.  Electronic communications can assist HR departments in determining what really happened in what sometimes can be a “he said/she said” situation.
  5. Take corrective action if appropriate, even if it is the first offense. According to Ms. Fowler, Uber didn’t take her complaint seriously because her supervisor was a “high performer.” Ensure that your evaluation metrics take into account professional behavior in addition to job performance.
  6. Never forget that diversity matters.  Ms. Fowler emphasized the low number of women on her team and in the company in general.  Promoting diversity based on gender, race, ethnicity and other categories helps to ensure that all voices are heard.
  7. Take a hard look at your hiring practices.  When performing background and reference checks, dig into information about previous claims against the prospective employee for workplace misconduct.  Keep in mind, however, that certain federal and state laws may govern your company’s ability to gather this type of information.
  8. Finally, never forget the power of the Internet.  Ms. Fowler’s story gained immediate national attention after she published a detailed essay on her personal blog.  While the Internet is a powerful place to promote your brand, this is not the sort of publicity most companies would like to see.

– Tracey E. Diamond

EEOC Issues Guidance Interpreting National Origin Discrimination

Q:  What does it mean to discriminate against someone based on their national origin?

A:  Title VII prohibits employers from acting in a way that would have the purpose or effect or discriminating against an employee because of his or her national origin.

But what does the term “discrimination based on national origin” really mean?

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) recently issued an Enforcement Guidance on this subject. Although the EEOC’s position at times is broader than controlling case law, the Enforcement Guidance is helpful because it offers insight into how the EEOC will investigate claims of alleged national origin discrimination in the future.  It is significant that 11 percent of EEOC Charges filed in 2015 contained an allegation of national origin discrimination.

According to the EEOC, national origin discrimination means discrimination because an individual (or his or her ancestors) is from a certain place or has the physical, cultural, or linguistic characteristics of a particular ethnic group. National origin discrimination often overlaps with race, color, or religious discrimination because a national origin group may be associated with (or, according to the EEOC, perceived to be associated with) a particular religion or race.

Title VII prohibits an employer from using certain recruitment practices, such as sending job postings only to ethnically or racially homogenous areas or audiences, or requesting that an employment agency refer only applicants of a particular national origin group. Importantly, employers may not rely on the discriminatory preferences of coworkers or customers as the basis for an adverse employment action in violation of Title VII.  Thus, for example, a retail store may not reject an applicant for not fitting its “all American image.”

Social Security Numbers

The EEOC also addressed an issue that sometimes trips up employers. According to the EEOC, having a policy or practice of screening out candidates who lack a Social Security number implicates Title VII if it disproportionately screens out work-authorized individuals of a certain national origin, such as newly arrived immigrants or new lawful permanent residents, and thus has a disparate impact based on national origin. The EEOC has clarified that newly-hired employees should be allowed to work if they can show that they have applied for but not yet received a Social Security number.

Accents

Under Title VII, an employer may refuse to hire (or fire) an individual if his or her accent interferes materially with job performance. To meet this standard, however, an employer must be able to provide evidence showing that: (1) effective English communication is required to perform job duties; and (2) the individual’s accent materially interferes with his or her ability to communicate in spoken English. Likewise, an English fluency or English proficiency requirement is permissible only if required for the effective performance of the position for which it is imposed.

According to the EEOC, the key is to distinguish a merely discernible accent from one that actually interferes with the spoken communication skills necessary for the job. Evidence of an accent materially interfering with job duties may include documented workplace mistakes attributable to difficulty understanding the individual, assessments from several credible sources who are familiar with the individual and the job, or specific substandard job performance that is linked to failures in spoken communication.

Hostile Work Environment Claims

The EEOC’s Enforcement Guidance also issued an important reminder to employers that harassment based on an employee’s national origin could give rise to liability for a hostile work environment. A hostile work environment based on national origin can take different forms, including ethnic slurs, ridicule, intimidation, workplace graffiti, physical violence, or other offensive conduct directed toward an individual because of his birthplace, ethnicity, culture, language, dress, or foreign accent.  None of this behavior should be tolerated in the workplace.

Promising Practices

The EEOC lists several “promising practices” for employers to consider to avoid liability for national origin discrimination:

  • Use a variety of recruitment methods to attract as diverse a pool of job seekers as possible;
  • Identify your Company as an equal opportunity employer;
  • Implement clearly-defined criteria for evaluating performance;
  • Distribute a policy prohibiting harassment based on national origin and train employees regarding their rights and obligations under the policy.

Tracey E. Diamond

Background Checks in the Era of Ban the Box

Q: What does it mean to “ban-the-box,” and how does it affect our hiring process?

 A: Ban-the-box legislation is quickly spreading throughout state and local jurisdictions.  Even if your jurisdiction has not adopted such legislation yet, it is likely that it will do so in the not-so-distant future. Therefore, it is vital to understand both the rationale behind the legislation and how it will affect your organization’s hiring processes.

The “box” that is the subject of so much controversy is the commonly used checkbox on job application forms that asks whether an applicant has a prior criminal record. Limiting an employer’s access to a prospective employee’s criminal history at the initial stage of the hiring process is thought to decrease the likelihood that an employer will discriminate against an ex-offender, thereby reducing employment barriers for those individuals.

Ban-the-box laws attempt to effectuate this policy goal by limiting (1) what can be asked of applicants prior to hiring, (2) when inquiries into criminal history can be made, and (3) the type and age of offenses that may be considered by employers in making hiring decisions. Some research studies have suggested that “banning the box” has resulted in the unintended consequence of broader discrimination against minority applicants because of employer bias that such applicants are more likely to be ex-offenders.

Nevertheless, the movement continues to gain momentum. Recently, Connecticut joined the State of New Jersey, New York City, Philadelphia and many other states, cities and localities in enacting ban-the-box legislation for private employers.  In addition, President Obama has banned the box by prohibiting federal agencies from inquiring into the criminal record of an applicant until the final phase of the application process.

It is important to note, however, that ban-the-box laws do not prohibit employers from ever inquiring into the criminal history of applicants. The laws concentrate on when and in what manner such inquiries may be made.  The Philadelphia ordinance, for example, permits employers to inquire into an applicant’s criminal history after a conditional offer of employment has been made.  The employer is then required to engage in an individualized assessment of the applicant, which includes consideration of the nature of the offense, the time that has passed since the offense, the particular duties of the job being sought, evidence of rehabilitation, previous employment history, and any character references provided by the applicant.  In contrast, the New Jersey ban-the-box law allows an employer to inquire into criminal history after the applicant’s first interview.  The New Jersey law is also much narrower than the Philadelphia ordinance; other than the timing requirement, it only prohibits an employer from considering expunged convictions and does not require that employers undertake any “individualized” assessment of the applicant’s conviction history.

Even if your jurisdiction has not yet been affected by ban-the-box, it is wise to begin adjusting your hiring procedures now so that you are prepared once such legislation arrives. At minimum, employers should make the following changes:

  • Remove the “box,” i.e., eliminate questions regarding criminal history from employment applications.
  • Ensure compliance with the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act , which requires disclosure and consent before running a criminal background check, as well as disclosures before taking any adverse action because of the results of the background check,
  • Train managers on what they can and can’t ask during job interviews. Where “ban the box” is in effect, questions regarding an applicant’s criminal history, whether oral or in writing, should be asked only when permitted by the applicable statute.
  • Take action to eliminate any unconscious bias against certain demographic groups in the recruiting process.
  •  Keep abreast of pending ban-the-box legislation in your jurisdiction; once enacted, such legislation might place limitations on how an applicant’s criminal history may be considered in the hiring process.

– Tracey E. Diamond and Laura Kleinberg