Employers attempt to balance work and religion

Complaints alleging religious discrimination have risen 75 percent in the past decade.

Aiming to catch more customers, Bank One Corp. recently opened its Phoenix supermarket branches on Sundays - one of the busiest grocery shopping days of the week. But when bank employees learned of the new shift, not all cheered. One teller refused to work the hours, telling his supervisors it violated his religious beliefs.

"They said everyone has to work at least some time on Sunday," recalls the employee, who asked not to be identified. "Their reasoning is that by allowing someone to be out on Sunday, that would show favoritism to that religion. I told them, 'OK, I'll either have to change to another branch office that isn't open on Sunday or find another job."

The employee's religion-versus-work dilemma highlights a growing challenge in the American workplace. Disputes over providing religious accommodations at work have increased - not only for Christians but also for America's increasingly diverse religious adherents. And the burden falls hardest on small businesses.

"It's a common situation, regardless of the size of the business or type of business, and regardless of whether it's 24/7 or 9-to-5," says Jeanne Goldberg, senior attorney adviser for the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The EEOC in fiscal year 2003 received 2,532 charges alleging religious discrimination - a 75 percent jump over the 1,449 complaints filed in 1993. By contrast, race-based charges, while more numerous, have declined somewhat over the 10-year period, with 28,526 charges filed in 2003 compared with 31,695 in 1993.

A typical religious accommodation charge involves an employee seeking to swap shifts with another employee to attend a Sabbath observance, explains Ms. Goldberg. "They've arranged the accommodation on their own, but the employer will not permit that voluntary swap," she says. "It's a very common type of claim."

For years, Christians have filed complaints about working on Sundays and Jews about Saturday shifts, says Peggy Mastroianni, EEOC's associate legal counsel. "Now the other kind of case we're seeing ... is Muslim employees who need to go to prayer on Friday. They may not need the entire day off, but it might be a two- to three-hour period in the middle of the day."

Making accommodations

Federal law requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for workers' religious needs, unless it imposes an undue hardship on the company. Most cases that end up in court involve disputes over what constitutes an undue hardship, Goldberg says.

As a whole, employers do a good job of making accommodations for once-a-year events, says Lorraine Mixon-Page, former chairwoman of the workplace diversity committee at the Society for Human Resource Management in Alexandria, Va.

At the same time, employers are naturally cautious about making an exception for one individual. "We look at what the possible ramifications are for the whole workforce," says Ms. Mixon-Page, who is now manager of human resources for Missouri Consolidated Healthcare Plan in Jefferson, Mo. "You have to be careful about setting precedents."

Large employers usually have enough staff to make accommodations, she says. But for the small employer, it's a different story. "If everyone has a different religious affiliation, and each one comes with his own set of observances, then, from a staffing prospective, you could be in for a difficult time," she says.

Religious diversity trend

Some experts predict that workforce conflicts over religion will grow. "This is a problem that is going to get bigger and bigger because it's demographically driven," says Georgette Bennett, president of the New York-based Tanenbaum Center, which advises workplaces on religious diversity issues.

Changing immigration patterns are boosting the number of people from parts of the world with less familiar religious beliefs and practices, she says. For example, immigration from Asia represented 26 percent of the total in 2002 compared with just 9 percent in 1970. European immigration, meanwhile, dropped to 14 percent in 2002 from 62 percent in 1970. The workforce also is aging, she adds. The older people get, the more important religion becomes to them, Ms. Bennett says, citing research by national polling companies.

Another factor, she adds, is political: "With religion having been thrust into the public arena in a way that it hadn't been before, that is emboldening people to assert their religious rights in a way they might not have done if religion had not been so politicized."

Despite these factors, only about 4 percent of firms have policies that specifically deal with religious accommodations, according to a recent Tanenbaum survey of human resource professionals. Like many companies, Bank One includes religion as one of many factors in a policy that prohibits discrimination or harassment of any kind, says Thomas Kelly, spokesman for the bank. Scheduling issues are handled case by case, he says.

After some back-and-forth between the Phoenix bank teller and his supervisors, the bank finally agreed to let him either swap shifts with a co-worker or transfer to another branch office. He opted for the latter, noting that he didn't want to force a colleague to do something he was opposed to himself. "I'm going to take a lateral move to get out of working on Sunday," he says. "It's not better, it's not worse. It's just inconvenient to have to change."

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