The Supreme Court Weighs Whether USPS Can Force Employees to Work Sundays
Former letter carrier says the mandate undermines his religious liberty.
The Supreme Court on Tuesday expressed an openness to rethinking how employers like the U.S. Postal Service must accommodate their employees’ religions as it heard arguments from a former letter carrier who refused to work on Sundays.
The case has garnered significant interest as various religious groups have said existing statute and precedent give employers too much leeway to avoid providing any compromise to employees who face certain restrictions on their availability or ability to engage in certain tasks. The justices appeared to agree the existing framework presented challenges, but at least several were reluctant to open the door to unfettered accommodations without significant consideration for the employers’ needs.
The litigation was brought by Gerald Groff, a USPS letter carrier who sued after being asked to work on Sundays on the grounds the requirement violated his religious liberty. After originally avoiding those shifts by taking on other work during the week, Groff’s supervisor mandated he work on Sundays during the peak holiday season. The 1964 Civil Rights Act requires employers to accommodate their workers’ religious observance so long as it does not create an undue hardship on the business.
In the 1977 case Trans World Airlines v. Hardison, the Supreme Court found that forcing an employer to operate shorthanded amounted to such a hardship.
Groff began working at USPS in 2012 and the Sunday hours began in 2013, after the mailing agency struck a deal with Amazon to deliver its packages. He did not personally face a requirement to work on Sundays until 2016, at which point he refused and faced discipline until he eventually resigned in 2019.
In his written brief to the court, Groff argued the de minimis threshold an employer had to meet to prove an undue hardship—as created by Hardison—was too low. Further, he said, the statute protects employers and not their employees. Only his colleagues were inconvenienced by his not working Sundays, whereas USPS still fulfilled its contractual obligations with Amazon.
Aaron Streett, Groff’s attorney, said before the court on Tuesday that the de minimis standard created a “mockery of the English language” and religious accommodations should be provided similarly as those afforded to employees requiring pregnancy check ups or snack breaks due to their diabetes.
The Justice Department, arguing on behalf of the Postal Service, agreed a true de minimis standard would be insufficient to prove undue hardship on an employer, but suggested the federal circuit and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission have long relied on a higher threshold. The government also noted the local postmaster at Groff’s facility said his absences created a “tense atmosphere” in the workplace and led to “resentment toward management” because the remaining employees had to take on more work. The law, the Biden administration said in its brief, makes clear the hardships on the organization cannot be distinguished from those on the workforce. The initial accommodation of Groff directly impacted USPS business by forcing the agency to operate with insufficient staff and lose employees who quit or transferred.
“As this case illustrates, accommodations that affect the workforce often affect the conduct of the business as well,” Justice said. “That may occur, for example, when an accommodation would result in unbalanced workloads or unfavorable schedules that hamper employee retention.”
Elizabeth Prelogar, the U.S. solicitor general who argued on behalf of the government on Tuesday, urged the court not to upend the decades of case law that have helped define exactly what creates an undue hardship for employers like USPS.
“The thing I'm trying to avoid is this idea that the court would just throw it all up for grabs and say, ‘We have to do this over under some new standard and this case law is irrelevant,’” Prelogar said.
Several justices questioned Streett’s argument that negatively impacting morale at Groff’s post office could not itself create a hardship for the business.
“Anyone running a business in America knows that morale of the employees is critical to the success of the operation,” Justice Brett Kavanaugh said.
Justice Amy Coney Barrett similarly suggested that it would be difficult to put a dollar value on employees losing productivity because they are unhappy or overworked. Streett said he was not seeking a specific dollar amount threshold to avoid providing religious accommodations, but employers should have to prove they are so overburdened that they cannot carry out their duties. He suggested the court should follow the path taken by several states and adopt a “significant difficulty or expense test” to define when an employer was facing an undue hardship.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor said it was plainly obvious that Groff’s absence had a real impact on USPS operations.
“Anyone who's [seen] delivery people work during the holidays, if you pay any attention, most of them are exhausted at the end of their day,” Sotomayor said. “It costs to run extra hours, and it costs to do more work. And that cost can't be quantified, always, in money.”
Some justices also noted the framework Groff was requesting could create a disparate system. Justice Elena Kagan suggested some employees may want Sundays off to go to their kids’ Little League games or to go to church even without being a strict “Sabbath observer” like Groff. Kavanaugh asked what would happen if a Catholic employee wanted Sundays off or a Jewish employee wanted Saturdays off even if they did not argue their religion compelled it. He suggested that could create a system in which “your religion is not good enough.”
Justice Neil Gorsuch stressed that both parties agreed the de minimis standard, taken literally, was insufficient to protect religious freedom. In some cases, he noted, courts have suggested anything more than a “trifling” inconvenience allowed employers to get out of providing any accommodations.
“That’s wrong and we all agree that’s wrong,” Gorsuch said.
A district court originally ruled against Groff and an appeals court affirmed that decision before the Supreme Court took the case. Gorsuch suggested his colleagues remand the case back to the lower level after striking the de minimis language. There was not the widespread agreement Gorsuch had sought, however, as Prelogar again cautioned against throwing away all the case law Hardison had created and Kagan said there was still significant uncertainty in which cases require accommodations.
“I’m happy that we’re all kumbaya-ing together,” Kagan said sarcastically.
Sotomayor cautioned the court against overruling statutory precedent based on using a “fortune teller apparatus or a soothsayer apparatus” into what previous lawmakers and justices had meant when they wrote relevant laws and opinions. She suggested the court would not be able to go as far as Groff had hoped in defining what amounted to an undue burden.
“What's clear to me after all this discussion is that as much as ... some people might want to provide absolute clarity, there is none we can give there because it's all contextual,” she said.
Prelogar noted in the specifics of Groff’s case, for example, the Postal Service had tried to find other employees to take his shifts and it only became an issue when it could not do so.
“The lower courts correctly credited the good faith of the Postal Service and trying to put into effect an accommodation,” Prelogar said.
Caroline Mala Corbin, a constitutional law professor at the University of Miami who specializes in religious issues, said after the hearing the court appears likely to alter its precedent and the only question is by how much. She added the justices found unconvincing the argument that worker morale is not part and parcel of the conduct of a business.
“The Supreme Court is definitely going to expand protections for religious employees in the workplace,” Corbin said.
After the hearing, Groff told reporters that no one should have to choose between their faith and career like he did. His attorney said the case presented the chance to reverse an overly restrictive precedent.
"The justices have the opportunity in this case to restore religious liberty to the workplace," Streett said. "An America that values religious pluralism should respect the religious liberty rights of every employee."