Seventh Circuit: No Religious Discrimination by Retailer in Scheduling Dispute

Employment Law

A retail store busy on Fridays and Saturdays did not engage in religious discrimination when it refused to accommodate a Seventh-day Adventist’s schedule, the U.S. Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit recently determined.

Walmart offered Edward Hedican a job as a full-time assistant manager at its Hayward, Wisconsin, store. Hedican explained that, as a Seventh-day Adventist, he cannot work between sundown Friday and sundown Saturday.

The store’s human resources manager assessed whether Walmart could accommodate Hedican’s religious practices. The store had a total of eight assistant managers and a policy of rotating them through the entire schedule as well as each of the store’s departments, so that each assistant manager was familiar with the entire store.

Accommodating Hedican would leave the store shorthanded at some times, require it to hire a ninth assistant manager or compel the other seven assistant managers to cover extra weekend shifts despite their preference to have weekends off, the HR manager concluded.

She raised with Hedican the possibility that he apply for an hourly management position, which would not be subject to the rotation schedule.

Instead of applying for the other position, he filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which decided to prosecute a failure-to-accommodate suit.

Walmart moved for summary judgment, arguing that its invitation to Hedican to apply for an alternative position satisfied its duty to accommodate his religious practice, and that any greater obligation would result in an undue hardship.

The district court agreed, and the Seventh Circuit affirmed.

The panel (one judge dissenting) was not persuaded by the EEOC’s suggestions of various accommodations that Walmart could have offered to Hedican, including giving him the job and letting him trade shifts with other assistant managers.

“But that would not be an accommodation by the employer, as Title VII contemplates,” the court wrote. “This proposal would thrust on other workers the need to accommodate Hedican’s religious beliefs. That’s not what the statute requires.”

The Supreme Court has held that Title VII does not require an employer to offer an accommodation that comes at the expense of other workers, the court added, and what would Walmart have done if the other workers balked? the Seventh Circuit pointed out.

Another possibility posed by the EEOC: Assign Hedican permanently to a specific schedule that did not include Fridays or Saturdays.

“Once again this is a proposal to require more weekend work by the other assistant managers—and without their approval, as a shift-trading system entails,” the court said. “We repeat that the burden of accommodation is supposed to fall on the employer, not on other workers.”

The court also rejected the EEOC’s suggestion that Walmart simply accept the presence of fewer assistant managers on weekends. Further, all of the EEOC’s proposals would require Walmart to bear more than a slight burden when vacations, illnesses and vacancies reduced the number of other assistant managers available, the court added.

“Because accommodating Hedican’s religious practices would require Walmart to bear more than a slight burden (if he became one of the eight assistant managers), and because Title VII does not place the burden of accommodation on fellow workers, the district court’s judgment is affirmed,” the Seventh Circuit concluded.

To read the opinion in Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Walmart Stores East, click here.

Why it matters: The court was clear: Title VII requires that the burden of accommodation falls on employers, not on other workers, and employers need not bear more than a “slight burden” when providing religious accommodations. While the Seventh Circuit panel noted that three Supreme Court justices have indicated their desire to change the definition of undue hardship from “a slight burden,” as the law currently stands, Walmart did not unlawfully fail to accommodate Hedican’s religious beliefs.

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