Religion and scheduling collide, with Acme left to clean up the pieces

Schedule disputes relating to religion spark an EEOC complaing from an ACME employee.

Nearly 40 years ago, three Vietnam veterans who lacked alternative job prospects pooled their accumulated military pay and went into business as the sole owners of Acme Reliability Industries. The early days saw the company rebuilding diesel engines. From its inception, the company’s forte has been contract maintenance, although its exact focus has evolved to ever more sophisticated technology. Now, Acme is a recognized regional powerhouse in the plant maintenance and engineering arena. The story of how the three owners steered their fortunes from grease monkeys grubbing for dirty work to white-shirted corporate executives overseeing the work of more than 500 highly skilled technicians who most local manufacturers crave is the stuff of a tale best saved for another time.

Apparently, the market appreciates their world-class wireless and Web-based predictive maintenance combined with a proven ability to field a team that can fast-track the required repairs on all manner of industrial equipment at a most economical price. Acme has found a niche in the economy, filled it to the brim and paved it over with a client-focused approach that has them clamoring for more.

Recognizing the idiocy of a command and control management structure in a global economy, the three run the office operation as a pure meritocracy, richly rewarding exempt employees who consistently display skill and efficiency. The operative principle is that anyone who helps Acme to prosper also will prosper. For example, Acme’s white-collar medical benefits are equivalent to what your U.S. senator in Washington gets.

These ground rules are part of the corporate culture, as is Acme’s belief in the power of participative management that gives even lower-level supervisors a voice in corporate policies and strategies. Needless to say, the company remains privately-owned and is unabashedly proud of the fact that employees have turned it into a hotbed of labor rest.

Although Acme can mobilize a crew at a moment’s notice to respond to a client’s emergency, most customers detest the resulting disruption and prefer to plan maintenance shutdowns, many of which occur on weekends. This is why Acme regularly schedules mandatory weekend work for its unionized technicians, one of whom is Jay Kupslatter.

Acme’s commercial success depends on workers who are trained, reliable and savvy enough to interact with clients and equipment effectively on their own, without direct supervision. That’s why every new Acme technician goes through a probationary period lasting typically about a year. These employees work only during weekdays under the direct tutelage of a capable supervisor/mentor. Technicians have an incentive to prove their mettle because weekend work is paid at premium rates.
During his first year, Jay fit into the Acme mold nicely. His time on a short leash was about to end because Jacques Hammer, his supervisor, had already drafted the recommendation letter that would put Jay on a regular work schedule.

The only rub was that Jay’s religious beliefs prohibit him from working on his weekend Sabbath, which starts at sundown Saturday and extends through sundown Sunday. Jay asked Jacques not to schedule him for weekend work during the Sabbath. Jacques explained that it would probably be impossible to accommodate that request. Nevertheless, to bring closure to the matter, Jacques arranged a meeting with Jay, Abbie Sedarian, Acme’s human resources manager; and Les Nookham, the steward for the union representing Jay and the other technicians.

The group was unable to achieve agreement on whether Jay could avoid having to work during one-half of a weekend. Jay then went to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) with claims that both Acme and his union had failed to find a way to accommodate his religious beliefs.

As the complaint was working its way through the bureaucracy, Abbie developed a proposed way out of the matter. Acme would not apply the mandatory attendance policy to Jay from sundown Saturday to sundown Sunday. To make up the time, Acme would adjust Jay’s work hours during the other six days of the week to avoid infringing on his Sabbath.

Jay knew a good thing when he saw it. Even Les, the union steward, liking the precedent Acme would set, sat on the sidelines to watch how things would develop. Jay accepted the accommodation and Acme never scheduled Jay for mandatory work on his Sabbath.

This arrangement endured for almost nine months. Then, Jay again was involved in a schedule dispute. He now argued that the agreement applied to weekends that he worked voluntarily, while Abbie and Jacques said it applied only to mandatory weekend work.

This conflict simmered for nearly a full year before Jay filed another EEOC complaint. This time, he claimed that Acme violated his rights by refusing to let the agreement apply to voluntary weekend work.

How could this situation have been prevented? How can this request for accommodation be prevented from turning into a deluge of similar requests from other workers? Is there any way to foresee such difficulties when hiring? To what extent should Acme get hard-nosed about special requests?

A corporate consultant says:
In my opinion, Acme erred in accommodating Jay the first time. Requests for an exception to some policy are as certain as death and taxes. Granting such requests makes any organization highly vulnerable to accusations of favoritism, requests for additional exceptions and, ultimately, a disregard for policies that have been shown to be negotiable.

By modifying their policies to suit Jay, Acme paved the way for exactly what happened, and they opened the door to an endless number of requests for permutations of the initial accommodation and, essentially, invited requests for other types of accommodation. Perhaps the greatest vulnerability Acme faces as a result of granting Jay's initial request is complaints from other employees who feel penalized because the flexibility granted to Jay isn’t equally available to them.

This case was predictable. Any exceptions to policy could evoke such results -- so yes -- Acme should have foreseen the difficulty. Applicants must decide whether they want the job that Acme offers and whether they're willing to comply with Acme's policies. Acme shouldn’t have to reevaluate its policies based on the special wishes of every new hire.

In this case, the hard-nosed way is the only squeaky clean way.

Francie Dalton
Dalton Alliances Inc.
(410) 715-0484
fmdalton@daltonalliances.com

An academician says:
I teach business strategy on occasion and one of the points we try to make to budding managers is that the first item on the business agenda that a company must develop is its unique value proposition, which is how the company is going to attain a sustainable competitive advantage. After making that decision, the next step is to put the necessary operational components into place to deliver that strategy. Without the latter, the former is nothing but a pipe dream and a lot of hot air.

Acme’s question could be viewed in this context. Certainly, part of Acme’s value proposition seems to be in delivering highly skilled technicians, quickly and when the client wants them, which often is on weekends. If Acme is like similar companies with which I’ve worked, the job requirements probably require out-of-town travel, unpredictable schedules to accommodate emergencies, and 12-hour days. The clients don’t bring the work to you. Rather you must go to them, and do so at another’s whim and convenience.

An employee’s willingness to adapt to travel, weekends and long days should be one of the hiring requirements for anyone who wants to work at Acme. That should be made clear upfront, before a person is hired. It’s part of the employment contract. Candidates who can’t fulfill the obligations shouldn’t be hired.

Jay should have been informed about the requirements before he was hired and should have been made to agree to these job requirements as a condition of his hiring. Now, Acme seems to be in a position of saying employees might not have to work Sundays, but then again, maybe employees will have to work Sundays. That question should have been settled before anyone was hired.

Professor Homer H. Johnson, Ph.D.
Loyola University Chicago
(312) 915-6682
hjohnso@luc.edu

An attorney says:
For once, Acme has found a practical solution to a problem that also comports with its legal obligations.
When an employer requires its employees to work overtime, it must accommodate two groups of protected employees -- those who are disabled under the Americans with Disabilities Act and those whose religious affiliation mandates a day of rest or attendance at religious services. In both cases, the employer is required to accommodate the employee unless it poses an undue hardship.

Normally, the accommodation requires an interactive give and take between employer and employee, but the employer has the final say on what accommodation it may elect. With respect to Jay, Abbie's solution was ideal. If Acme needed its technicians to work eight hours on a weekend to meet production demands, allowing Jay to work those extra eight hours during the week served Acme's goals while allowing Jay to observe the Sabbath dictated by his religion. Another workable solution would have been to allow Jay to work from 7 a.m. until 3 p.m. on Saturday.

However, the situation with respect to voluntary overtime work is completely different. "Voluntary" means precisely that. If an employee chooses to work, he is permitted to do so. Here, Jay chose to observe his religious day of rest, not work, and Acme has no obligation to supply him with additional working hours on alternate days.

Acme can prevent a deluge of requests from other workers by adhering to these principles. If an employee can’t work scheduled mandatory overtime because of a physical or mental disability or because of religious tenets, Acme should accommodate the employee's needs when it’s feasible to do so. All other employees are required, as a condition of employment, to work mandatory overtime. All employees, including the disabled and those with religious commitments, are free to work voluntary overtime whenever they wish.

Abbie gets a gold star for finding a solution to this one!

Julie Badel, partner
Epstein Becker & Green, P.C.
(312) 499-1418
jbadel@ebglaw.com

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