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New York City Employers Must Make Greater Effort to Make Religious Accommodations

New York City employers will now have to make an even greater effort to grant an employee’s request for religious accommodation.  The Workplace Religious Freedom Act which was signed into law on August 30, 2011, is effective immediately.  This new law increases the burden employers face when defending their denial of a religious accommodation. 

Previously, the City’s law excused an employer from making an accommodation if it would be a de minimus burden on the employer.  Many critics of that standard felt this meant any inconvenience to the employer would excuse their inaction.  Now, the Workplace Religious Freedom Act increases the burden.  Employers will have to provide an employee or prospective employee with a religious accommodation unless it would be an “undue hardship” on the employer. 

There are many factors the Court should now consider in determining undue hardship, including the size of the company, the company’s financial situation, the resources needed to complete the accommodation, and the impact on the operation of the facility.  Violation of the law can lead to civil fines of up to $125,000 or $250,000 if the employer’s conduct is found to be willful.  These fines are in addition to the recoveries already available to employees, including back pay, reinstatement, compensatory and punitive damages, and attorney’s fees. 

The new standard provides greater protections than Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  In fact, it closely mirrors the “undue hardship” standard under the Americans with Disabilities Act.  While the new standard’s overall impact is not clear, it is likely to have a greater impact on smaller employers, as they are usually the ones with the least flexibility and resources for granting accommodation requests.  If you believe an employee’s request for an accommodation may be a hardship on your business, we strongly advise consulting with counsel before making a decision which may lead to serious legal penalties. 

Brody and Associates regularly provides counsel on civil rights issues and employment laws in general.  If we can be of assistance in this area, please contact us at info@brodyandassociates.com or 203.965.0560.