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USPS Revives Old Problematic Scheduling Formula That May Prevent Postal Workers From Observing the Sabbath, Potentially Violating a Major Supreme Court Decision

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Recently, the ACLJ was contacted by two different postal workers for the United States Postal  Service (USPS) following an announcement by the USPS that it will revive an old scheduling formula that could make it more difficult for postal workers to seek and obtain a religious accommodation to observe the Sabbath.

From the information we’ve been provided, this old policy assigns relief days (days off) according to a specific formula and essentially requires that all carriers work some Saturdays. The old scheduling policy also relieves junior carriers, who are on auxiliary routes, from working on Saturdays or other work relief days for regular carriers – resulting in even greater difficulty for regular carriers to observe the Sabbath if necessary.

One of our clients has served with the USPS for almost 20 years and is a senior regular carrier. As a practicing Messianic Jew, it has been his custom and regular religious practice to observe the Sabbath on Saturday. He is a leader at his local fellowship and has consistently observed the Sabbath in accordance with the Ten Commandments in Scripture. His conviction is that the commandment to observe the Sabbath falls in the same category as the other Ten Commandments (“You shall not murder” and “You shall not steal”). Our client is a valuable and long-time employee of the USPS. His record is excellent, and he has made every effort over the years to help Sunday through Friday when local management is in a pinch.

Our other client works for an Illinois Post Office and has been in the postal service since 1999. He is a senior rural carrier associate. His responsibilities require him to deliver packages along rural routes to areas not as regularly served. For many years he was able to perform his duties without incident; but due to these recent policy changes, he has been forced to work on Sunday, his religious Sabbath. As a senior employee, he is regularly required to cover routes six days a week and is now being required to work a seventh. It is his closely and sincerely held religious belief that God requires him, as a Christian, to refrain from work on Sundays.

Thus, when the two postal employees reached out to us, we were happy to help them navigate the process of renewing their request for a religious accommodation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VII requires employers to accommodate the religious practice of their employees unless doing so would impose an “undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.”

A religious belief to observe the Sabbath falls squarely within the definition of religion. As the Supreme Court explained just last year in Groff v. DeJoy, a case also involving a rural carrier associate for the Post Office, if an employee cannot work on a certain day due to their sincerely held religious belief and requests that day off as their Sabbath, an employer has an affirmative obligation to accommodate the employee’s sincerely held religious belief as long as it does not cause an undue hardship on the business. The Court clarified that undue hardship is “more severe than a mere burden.” Also, “an employer could not escape liability simply by showing that an accommodation would impose some sort of additional costs.” A de minimis or “small or trifling” cost does not constitute undue hardship. The costs would have to rise to the level of hardship that is “excessive” or “unjustifiable.”

Similarly, when “faced with an accommodation request . . . it would not be enough for an employer to conclude that forcing other employees to work overtime would constitute an undue hardship. Consideration of other options, such as voluntary shift swapping, would also be necessary.”

It would appear that the USPS’s revival of this old scheduling formula could allow less senior employees (junior carriers) to take the Sabbath and Sunday off, while senior employees like our two clients are required to work these days with no options for relief. The USPS’s policy not only appears to be targeted at forcing its full-time senior employees to work on Saturdays and Sundays, but it also removes all measures in place to accommodate employees who hold religious beliefs. However, the USPS’s prior practices demonstrate that accommodations can and have been made for many years without undue hardship.

Fortunately, for one of our clients, his request for religious accommodation has already been granted. As for the other client, we are sending a demand letter requiring a response to our accommodation request. USPS has been delaying and refusing to provide an answer to our client, and we are demanding an answer immediately. Without an answer, our client’s rights are being violated every Sunday he is made to work. He is next scheduled to work on Father’s Day, which will be particularly egregious. We are preparing to proceed with legal action should that response not be favorable.

UPDATE 06.14.2024: The very day that the USPS supervisor for our Illinois client received our demand letter, they called our client into their office and told him that they were taking him off the Sunday schedule until further notice. They have not granted his accommodation request yet, but they are at least temporarily accommodating him while the bureaucratic process resolves his request. We are encouraged to see that our client is protected while the matter is ongoing and can enjoy Father's Day at church with his family, but we will not let up in ensuring that his religious beliefs are fully protected.

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