Accessibility links

Employers Must Accommodate Religious Needs in the Workplace

  • Chana Joffe-Walt

Federal law says employers in the United States may not discriminate on the basis of religion. While this seems to be a straightforward rule, practically speaking, employers appear to be having trouble following it. As religious diversity increases in U.S. society and the workplace, so do the number of religious discrimination charges filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Employers are being asked to be more accommodating.... and more knowledgeable.

During Ramadan, the 9th month of the Islamic calendar, Muslims are required to fast during the daylight hours and pray at sunrise and sunset. So when the Oberto Sausage Company made a change in its workers' shifts, 6 Muslim employees on the processing line became worried. It was Ramadan and the women, all Somali refugees, needed to pray and break their fast at 5 o'clock. After their requests to take a break at sunset were denied, the women sought help from the Refugee Support Services Coalition in Seattle. Its director, Suldan Mohammoud, a Somali refugee himself, wrote a letter to the company in English on the women's behalf.

It read, in part, "we are non-profit organization founded in 2000. In the Islam, regardless of where you live in the world, you will continue to practice your religion such as prayer, which is 5 obligatory prayers, fasting during Ramadan. The following people are our community members, are employees of your company, they have complained about evening prayer times..."

Company officials again denied the women's requests and when they continued to observe Ramadan, they were fired. The women then filed a complaint with the U.S. government's Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or EEOC. Last month, almost 2 years after the incident, the Oberto Sausage Company accepted liability, agreed to pay the women a large settlement, and change its policy on religious accommodations.

Kathryn Olson, an EEOC attorney who was involved in the case, says problems like this often start because managers don't understand what's involved in 'reasonable accommodations.'

"Employers do have the right to have workplace rules and the right to have policies and expectations," she explains, "but [they] don't understand, especially in this context, how they might have to bend or change some of those rules in order to meet their duty to accommodate some of those rules."

Ms. Olson says religious discrimination problems arise in all sorts of workplaces and with every religious background. She recalls a recent case involving "an individual who, based on his religious belief, couldn't work from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday. I think he was Seventh Day Adventist... And he was a truck driver. New supervisor comes in and says you have to work these days and you don't have enough seniority to choose. Ultimately he was terminated."

The EEOC brought a lawsuit against an employer on behalf of a man who practices Kemetic Orthodoxy, an ancient Egyptian religion. As part of his belief system, Ms. Olson explains, "he has very thin bracelet like tattoos on his wrist that include the name of God. This happens to be a restaurant. At some point a higher-level manager realized [he had the tattoos, and] said he either had to cover up these tattoos or he would be fired. He refused to cover them up because it was against his beliefs to hide the name of God and he was terminated."

It's not only minority religions that face workplace discrimination. Ms. Olson just reviewed a case from a Christian woman. "An employee was applying for a job and was asked a number of questions about her religious practices and was asked to pray with the individuals who were doing her interview," she says. "It became clear by the end of the interview that though she practiced the same religion as the people who were interviewing her she wasn't as devout. And ultimately she didn't get the job."

Such incidents appear to be on the rise. Kathryn Olson says the number of EEOC religious discrimination charges has increased by about 20% since 2000. "We're seeing so many more immigrants and people from so many different countries and cultures who come to our country," she says. "It's that richness of culture and religious practice that creates such an interesting environment. Part of it is employers don't appreciate the complexity of some of these issues."

But for Suldan Mohammoud, of the Refugee Support Services Coalition, it's very simple: "If you hire someone you need to know what is related to him or her. Even though they don't speak English, they are in the community." He says that even though his clients did not speak English, they were aware that people in the United States have equal rights. "They told me verbally they know they have equal rights like everyone else. So you need to accommodate."

The 6 women who brought the suit against Oberto Sausage are pleased with the outcome of the case, according to Gwynne Skinner, a public interest lawyer who represented them. "They're feeling really good about it," she says. "They feel mostly good about it because they made change happen at Oberto. They all had their eye on getting Oberto to realize what they did wrong and to make changes. So they're very happy with the outcome."