Take me to church — to reasonably accommodate my disability


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Let’s say that you have an employee who suffers from anxiety and stress. The employee is very religious and her doctor encourages her to attend church on Sundays. Not only does church provide fulfill her spiritually, but it helps to lower both the stress and anxiety and significantly reduce her reliance upon prescription medication.

But, you’ve scheduled this employee to work a Sunday through Thursday schedule. Still, she comes to you and asks for all Sundays off to attend church as an accommodation for her anxiety and stress, which are probably disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Question: Do you have to allow her to go to church?

Alright lawyers, say it with me….It depends.

In the recent case of Atwood v. PCC Structurals, Inc. (opinion here), the employer did not have to accede to the plaintiff’s request to have all Sundays off. But, that’s because the defendant proffered undisputed evidence that regular attendance was an essential function of the job and the plaintiff was the only person available in her department on Sundays. Further, the plaintiff requested not just a few Sundays off, but all Sundays off.  Moreover, the company offered the plaintiff an adjusted schedule so that she could attend both church and work on Sundays. But the plaintiff refused.

Remember, the plaintiff is entitled to a reasonable accommodation, but not necessarily her first choice.

But, then again, it depends.

What if, in your workplace, you can readjust the employee’s work schedule to Monday through Friday without creating undue burden? That would be a reasonable accommodation. Or, what if the employee has FMLA leave available that she wants to take on Sunday to attend church? Indeed, if the leave is medically necessary and cannot be rescheduled to another day/time, then you will violate the Family and Medical Leave Act (at the very least) by refusing it.

The interactive dialogue is key for employers.

Critically, these accommodation cases require employers to entertain disability accommodation requests in good faith. Therefore, it is important to discuss the various possible accommodations with the employee before deciding what to do. In doing so, this interactive dialogue may not only result in a suitable accommodation, but also avoid a lawsuit.

Image credit: By Hiuppo (Own work) [GFDL or CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons