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Holly Hach was hired as a project developer, a managerial job overseeing the day-to-day work performed by the six employees in the project group. This was a fast-paced operation in which conditions beyond one’s control could change quickly and demand a rapid response.
Holly has been strictly observant of her religion for the past 12 years and observed the Jewish Sabbath without fail. This prevented Holly from working or traveling between sundown on Friday and sundown on Saturday. During the winter, the sun set on the Acme plant as early as 4:30 p.m. The strict religious observance meant that Holly had to buy and cook her meals on Friday before sundown.
During her job interview, Holly revealed that she was Jewish and would need to leave early on Fridays. Sam Bucco, the project manager, indicated that the company could work that out.
Holly’s family lived in a large house located about 90 miles from the Acme plant. The house had been the Hach family more than 60 years. Holly also rented an efficiency apartment that was about 20 minutes from the plant. She lived at the apartment from Sunday evening to Friday morning and at the house from Friday after work until Sunday evening.
As far as Acme knew, the apartment was Holly’s official residence because it was the address she used for payroll purposes and any Acme paperwork that required an address. During her first six months heading the department, Holly left immediately after the lunch period on Fridays and sent her team an e-mail to announce that she was leaving. Several times, Holly didn’t come to the plant, sending an e-mail to her team from her handheld device as she drove home.
“If exceptions are made for one employee, then why would it not be fair to make exceptions for all employees?”
Soon, the employees in Holly’s department began to complain that Holly was always out of the office and sometimes couldn’t be located when questions arose. Others downstream in the work flow complained that Holly’s department was running behind schedule.
Sam discussed Holly’s performance with Acme management, but he took no action because Holly was scheduled for leave under FMLA for knee surgery in about a week. On the day before she was to go to the hospital, Holly announced that she’d be recuperating at her daughter’s house, the one 90 miles from the plant.
During the 12 weeks of leave, Sam assumed Holly’s job responsibilities and soon found deficiencies in Holly’s work, including ambiguous instructions issued to the team and the true level of the work backlog. It was during the FMLA leave that the workload in Holly’s department ramped up quite a bit. Sam had no choice but to bring in a contractor to help complete some of the work. During the spike in workload it became clear to Sam that Holly couldn’t perform this job if she continued to work only a half day on Friday.
Holly returned the day before her leave expired and Sam discussed with her Acme’s concerns about, and displeasure with, her job performance. Sam insisted that Holly make greater effort to perform the expected job duties and to remain at work until the normal quitting time on Fridays.
A few days later, Sam sent Holly an e-mail confirming their discussion about Holly’s work performance and work schedule. Holly replied that there was a preemployment understanding that she would work only half a day on Friday and that it would be impossible for her to stay until the normal quitting time. She remained adamant that Acme was reneging on the agreement to let her leave at 1:00 on Friday.
Sam and Acme’s HR director met with Holly. When Holly remained adamant that she was leaving at 1:00 p.m. on Friday, Acme offered a choice: either work until 3:00 on Fridays or go to a four-day work week with an appropriate pay reduction. Holly rejected both options and Sam terminated her.
Holly responded by filing suit against Acme claiming religious discrimination because Acme refused to accommodate her religious observance of the Jewish Sabbath.
How could this situation have been avoided? Should Acme avoid hiring anyone who makes nonstandard scheduling requests during the job interview? What scheduling options would have resolved this situation? How can Acme prevent such misunderstandings from arising again?
Let’s make one distinction from the outset. Acme has a legal obligation to accommodate Holly’s religious beliefs by allowing her to leave work before sundown on Friday. Acme has no obligation whatsoever to accommodate Holly’s desire to travel to her family home 90 miles away before sundown on Friday.
What exactly was agreed to at the time Holly was hired is likely a subject of dispute, Holly’s version being that Acme promised her a four and a half day work week. Regardless of what might have been promised, however, Acme was entitled to change the rules if the arrangement was causing a problem for the company. Its only legal obligation was to accommodate Holly’s religious beliefs, providing it didn’t pose an undue hardship for the company. It could have required Holly, for example, to put in whatever time was required to accomplish her work tasks, even if that meant working extra hours on days other than Friday.
More perplexing, however, is Acme’s reaction to Holly rejecting both alternatives it gave her — work until 3:00 p.m. on Friday or reduce her work week to four days per week with an accompanying pay reduction. Why didn’t Acme simply put Holly on a four-day schedule and reduce her wages instead of terminating her?
This situation could have been avoided by taking greater care at the hiring stage. Acme should have confirmed in writing what was agreed upon and added the caveat that the company reserved the right to change the arrangement as needed for business reasons. This could have been included in Holly’s offer letter.