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What Is An Undue Burden For An Employer?

While many U.S. workers believe that their employer has their best interests at heart – and some are likely correct – in reality, there are many instances where an employer has rights to act to protect the feasibility and profitability of their business. One of the times this is perhaps most obvious is when an employee requests accommodations, either for a disability or a religious observance. By law, an employer has the right to refuse an accommodation that presents an undue burden on the business or on the employer themselves. However, defining what is an undue burden and what constitutes an infringement of employee rights is complicated. Here is a quick guide to laws surrounding undue burdens and employment.

What Is An Undue Burden For An Employer?

The definition of “undue burden” has always been subjective. In the Americans with Disabilities Act, it is defined as an “action requiring significant difficulty or expense.” That definition will mean something different to a large employer with money to burn versus what it will mean to a mom-and-pop store with a minimum number of employees. It is important to keep in mind that expense is not the only metric that makes something burdensome – if too many people are inconvenienced, or if there is confusion created by the proposed change, an employer has the right to decline to implement it.

However, if one has to define “undue burden” in dealing with religious accommodations, rather than disability, one is dealing with the relevant state’s law and with guidance established by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). EEOC guidance suggests that religious accommodations be handled in a similar manner to disability accommodations, but extends the right to ask for them further – spouses and others in similar positions may also be found to have been discriminated against on the basis of religion, even if they themselves do not practice it. The rationale is still that the spouse may be damaged by their husband or wife being mistreated, on a financial or emotional level.

Burden Shifting

One of the most complex issues regarding what exactly constitutes an undue hardship is that if it gets to a point where a formal complaint has been filed, the burden of proof shifts between the plaintiff and the employer as to what exactly the hardship is. This can be quite confusing to the average person who simply wants to be treated with respect – most laypeople tend to think that if they prove their case, they need not rebut the employer’s. However, in cases relating to employment law where the decision can be extremely narrow, that is what must happen. The employee must try to prove that the requested accommodation was reasonable, which then puts the onus on the employer to try and prove the opposite if they are successful. If the employee is unsuccessful in showing their requested accommodation was reasonable for the employer, summary judgment for the employer will result.

A good example of this is EEOC v. Thompson Contracting, Grading, Paving & Utilities, Inc. (2012). The company employed a Jewish truck driver, unaware that his faith stringently required that he not work on the Sabbath, which for a Jewish person is Saturday. The driver refused to work on Saturdays and, after three absences, he was terminated. The driver filed a charge with the EEOC, putting forth in his proofs that there were reasonable accommodations available to Thompson – to hire a replacement for the driver on Saturdays, to press other employees into service in his place, or to even offer him a different position. The court ruled that given Thompson’s pool of employees and relative size as a company, all three options were untenable, though they might have been plausible for a larger company. Summary judgment for Thompson was affirmed.

Contact An Employment Lawyer

If you have questions about your employer’s right to deny you accommodations or want more clarification about what is an undue burden, speaking with an attorney can help set your mind at ease. Attorney A. Christopher Potts and his Charleston employment discrimination law firm are happy to assist you with your unique situation. Contact the office today to set up an appointment.

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