Do you want to have Sundays off? Does your job require that you work on some Sundays, or every Sunday, even though you would prefer not to? Now you can stay home from work on Sundays whether your boss wants to let you or not. But there is a catch:
You have to tell your boss that you are going to stay home and watch TV.
That’s right, a court recently ruled that an employer had to accommodate a worker who wanted to stay home from work on Sundays and watch TV – church TV. The worker, a woman named Kimberly Bloom from Pennsylvania, asked to be excused from her grocery store cashier position on Sundays for “religious reasons.” But she did not want the day off of work to go to church. She wanted the Sunday off so she could stay home and watch church on TV and spend time with family members.
In this case (which is called EEOC v. Aldi, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 25206), a court ruled that the grocery store where Ms. Bloom worked had to do more than just allow her to try to find a co-worker to voluntarily swap shifts with her. Ms. Bloom had explained to her boss that due to her religion, she could not work on Sundays and she could not encourage co-workers to work on Sundays either (by trading shifts with her). The Aldi grocery store refused to excuse Ms. Bloom from working the entire day unless she found a co-worker to cover her shift. Aldi did, however, say that she could come to work late on Sunday so she could attend a church service before her shift started. Ms. Bloom then explained to her boss that she did not go to church on Sundays. She watched church services on TV, read her Bible, and spent time with her family. Her boss did not believe that Aldi had to excuse Ms. Bloom from work so she could stay home and watch TV and spend time with her family.
The next Sunday came. Ms. Bloom did not try to find a co-worker to trade shifts with her. Aldi did not excuse her from working that Sunday. Ms. Bloom did not show up for her Sunday shift. Then the next Sunday arrived. Again Ms.Bloom did not try to find coverage for her Sunday shift. Again her boss at the store did not excuse her. And again Ms. Bloom did not show up for work. Aldi fired her. Ms. Bloom quickly fired back, filing a religious discrimination complaint with the EEOC against Aldi. As I explain in detail in Work Laws Exposed, filing a complaint with the EEOC or your own state’s Labor Bureau can save you tons of money compared to hiring a lawyer. Even better for Ms. Bloom, the EEOC decided it would pursue her complaint against the grocery chain Aldi in court, and the EEOC’s own lawyers would handle the case.
The Legal Standard
According to federal law, employers must:
“[R]easonably accommodate employees’ sincerely held religious practices unless doing so would impose an undue hardship on the employer.”
When the case went to court the lawyers for Aldi made three arguments:
<!–[if !supportLists]–>1. <!–[endif]–>Aldi argued that it did “reasonably accommodate” Ms Bloom by allowing her to search for a co-worker willing to trade shifts with her;
<!–[if !supportLists]–>2. <!–[endif]–>Aldi claimed that Sunday shifts were a core job function of cashiers like Ms. Bloom, and that waiving Sunday shifts for her would be an “undue hardship” on Aldi because it would have to waive that requirement for other cashiers too; and,
<!–[if !supportLists]–>3. <!–[endif]–>Aldi argued that since Ms. Bloom did not attend church in person on Sundays, her desire not to work on that day was a personal desire, not a religious conviction.
Bloom v. Aldi: Who Won? Here’s how the court responded to Aldi’s three arguments:
<!–[if !supportLists]–>1. <!–[endif]–>The grocery store’s shift-swapping policy was not a reasonable accommodation because Ms. Bloom “established that she sincerely believes that it is a sin to work on the Sabbath or to ‘support’ another person working on Sundays.”
<!–[if !supportLists]–>2. <!–[endif]–>Aldi did not present evidence that it needed every grocery cashier available to work Sundays in order to remain open on Sundays. Also, Aldi did not present evidence that so many of its cashiers would ask for Sundays off because of their religious convictions that Aldi would not be able to remain open on Sundays;
<!–[if !supportLists]–>3. <!–[endif]–>The court ruled that Ms. Bloom did not have to attend church services in person in order to claim “religious” discrimination. The court stated that “Church attendance or membership in a particular sect is not necessary to assert a [religious discrimination] claim.”
After ruling in Ms. Bloom’s favor, the court went even further and stated that Bloom could seek punitive damages. These are the “punishment” damages that result in multi-million and multi-billion dollar verdicts that make headlines. Punitive damages were possible because Aldi failed to train management about avoiding religious bias.
The court also said that employers must make a good-faith effort to accommodate an employee’s religious based request. Aldi, however, just kept parroting it’s “you find a co-worker to trade shifts with” policy – which is not an effort to accommodate an employee. This case is surprising because the federal courts have historically not been very supportive of employees who ask for “reasonable accommodations” based on the employee’s religion. This court, however, was very supportive of Ms. Bloom’s claims and so was the EEOC. This may be a change in direction, or it may be an anomaly. Subscribe to the Undercover Lawyer’s Insiders List (green box on the right) and I will keep you apprised of whether this trend continues, and of the all the latest tips, tricks, and cases that affect your rights at work.