Friday, September 14, 2012

Religious Accommodation vs. Collective Bargaining Agreement - COTW #109

The latest employment law Case of the Week features the ultimate smackdown steel cage match of the millennium: religious accommodation vs. collective bargaining agreement (okay, maybe a bit of hyperbole). The Third Circuit recently addressed this issue in Fouche v. NJ Transit, and held that the winner (and still champion) was the collective bargaining agreement.

The employer had an employee who could not work on Sundays for religious reasons. Pursuant to a collective bargaining agreement (CBA), the employees picked their bus-driving schedules based on seniority. The plaintiff in this case was able to choose a schedule that did not include Sundays for awhile. Eventually, however, an employee with higher seniority returned to work and selected shifts that resulted in the plaintiff having to drive on Sundays. The employee could not work on Sundays so was eventually terminated.

Generally, an employer has an obligation to provide reasonable accommodations for the sincerely held religious beliefs of its employees - unless, the accommodation would impose an undue hardship on the employer. In religious accommodation cases, an "undue hardship" is defined as imposing more than a "de minimis" cost.

Here, the Third Circuit issued a short opinion affirming the trial court and holding that:
This accommodation would have placed an undue hardship on New Jersey Transit as Fouche's election not to drive on certain Sundays would have resulted in a breach of the seniority provision of the union's collective bargaining agreement, thus raising a legal issue.
I think the bottom line here is that a religious accommodation that requires breaching a CBA probably constitutes an "undue hardship."