By: Linda Sackey
Whether an accommodation will be considered reasonable for purposes of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is a question of great importance to employers and employees nationwide. The United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit recently addressed the issue in EEOC v. Walmart Stores East, et al., 992 F.3d 656 (7th Cir. 2021).
In that case, after Walmart offered Edward Hedican a position as one of eight full-time assistant managers, he informed the company that he was a Seventh-day Adventist. That meant that he could not work between sundown Friday and sundown Saturday. The store’s human resources manager found that Walmart would have to assign the other seven assistant managers to extra Friday and Saturday night shifts to accommodate Hedican. She concluded that such an accommodation would disrupt the store’s regular system of scheduling assistant managers, and she determined that it would occasionally leave the store shorthanded.
The human resources manager asked Hedican if he would instead apply for an hourly management position to avoid the rotation schedule that assistant managers are subject to. He declined and filed a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which prosecuted this lawsuit instead of Hedican.
Title VII makes it unlawful for an employer to discriminate against an employee because of his religion. “The term ‘religion’ includes all aspects of religious observance and practice, as well as belief, unless an employer demonstrates that he is unable to reasonably accommodate an employee’s or prospective employee’s religious observance or practice without undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.” The district court granted Walmart’s motion for summary judgment, finding that the interference with the store’s regular system of scheduling would constitute more than a slight burden. The district court also concluded that even though the entry-level pay for an hourly management job was lower than that of an assistant manager, the hourly management position was a reasonable accommodation.
On appeal, the EEOC argued that other accommodations would have enabled Hedican to work as an assistant manager. For example, the EEOC asserted that Walmart could have given him the job and allowed him to swap shifts with other assistant managers. However, following Supreme Court precedent, the Seventh Circuit ruled that Title VII does not obligate employers to offer an accommodation that comes at other employees’ expense. The burden of accommodation must fall on the employer, not on other employees.
One judge dissented, observing that the human resources manager did not even ask the other assistant managers whether they would be willing to adjust their schedules to accommodate Hedican. In the dissenting judge’s view, “[d]iscussion of the difficulty of accommodating Hedican brings to mind the sorts of excuses employers long trotted out for why it was impractical to hire women of child-bearing age: that employers could not afford to waste resources training employees who would quit as soon as they were pregnant; that projects and deadlines could not accommodate the gaps of maternity leave and the vagaries of daycare and school schedules; that client needs could not be met on a nine to five, Monday through Friday schedule.” The dissent observed that for situation, accommodations such as remote work and flexible work hours demonstrated that any challenges could be overcome.
The dissenting judge found that in this case, a factual question remained as to whether Walmart did enough to accommodate the employee’s religion; therefore, the judge would have reversed and remanded for a trial.