Employee Shift-Switching

When does an employer suffer undue hardship from requesting that other employees switch shifts to accommodate a Sabbath-observant employee?  What kind of shift-switching constitutes reasonable accommodation for such an employee?  The Sixth Circuit recently tackled these questions in Crider v. University of Tennessee, Knoxville, No. 11-5511 (6th Cir. filed Jul. 23, 2012).

Kimberly Crider was a Seventh Day Adventist hired by the University of Tennessee, Knoxville (“UTK”) in May 2008.  Among Crider’s duties was sharing responsibility with two other employees, Rost and Meador, for a 24/7 emergency cell phone that UTK students abroad could contact if they needed.  All three employees with phone duties were expected to carry the phone on some weekends.  Shortly after she was hired, Crider informed her supervisor that she could not carry the phone on Saturdays because doing so violated her Sabbath.  After verbally complaining to progressively higher levels of UTK’s administrative food chain, Crider filed a written request for religious accommodation around the end of May 2008.  UTK’s response? Permitting Crider to carry the phone on fewer Saturdays.

A short while later, Crider found out that she would have phone responsibility on an upcoming Saturday.  Crider proposed a solution to her supervisor: a voluntary schedule of shift exchanges, in which Crider would carry the phone on more days in exchange for Rost and Meador alternating weekend responsibilities.  When the supervisor proposed this to Rost and Meador, they rejected it as “too burdensome,” with Meador threatening to quit rather than carry the phone every other weekend.  Instead of requiring Rost and Meador to comply with the shift-switching, Crider’s supervisor (1) told Rost and Meador “not to do anything different at work” and (2) again approached Crider about weekend phone responsibilities.   Crider once again refused to carry the phone on Saturdays.  Shortly thereafter, on June 20, 2008, UTK terminated Crider because it felt she could not meet the job requirements.  Crider sued for religious discrimination under Title VII, and the District Court granted summary judgment to UTK.  The Sixth Circuit reversed and remanded, holding that summary judgment was inappropriate.

Turning first to whether UTK had reasonably attempted to accommodate Crider, the court held that “offering Crider fewer Saturday shifts is not a reasonable accommodation to religious beliefs which prohibit working on Saturdays.”

Moving next to the undue hardship question, the court first resolved an apparent conflict between the Supreme Court’s ruling in Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison, et. al., 432 U.S. 63 (1977), and the Sixth Circuit’s earlier ruling in Draper v. United States Pipe and Foundry Co., 527 F.2d 515 (6th Cir. 1975).  Specifically, the court held that Hardison did not overrule Draper because “[b]oth require the employer to show an undue hardship on its business, but also recognize that an accommodation’s effect on a co-worker may lead to an undue hardship on the employer.”  Here, UTK failed to prove it suffered an undue burden because it did not show that Meador’s threat to quit was anything more than “grumbling.”  However, because Meador’s threat might have been more than “grumbling,” a dispute of material fact existed, and summary judgment was inappropriate.

Lastly, the court found that instructing Rost and Meador “not to do anything different at work” might have constituted frustration of Crider’s accommodation.  However, the instruction’s meaning was unclear, raising another dispute of material fact to defeat summary judgment.

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