Supreme Court rejects USPS bid to require employees to work on Sundays
The Postal Service may still prevail in lower court, but the high court has created a new precedent USPS must now follow in providing religious accommodations.
The Supreme Court on Thursday ruled against the U.S. Postal Service in its attempts to require any employee to work on Sundays, even when it conflicted with their religious observances.
In a unanimous decision, the top court reversed decades of precedent in determining that employers like USPS have to demonstrate more than a de minimis burden to avoid their otherwise mandated obligations to provide reasonable religious accommodations. The justices sent the case back to a lower court to determine whether, given the specifics of the case, the Postal Service could come up with other means to keep a letter carrier on the payroll without requiring him to work on Sundays.
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. It also established the de minimis threshold an employer had to meet to prove an undue hardship, which Groff argued was too low. Only his colleagues were inconvenienced by his not working Sundays, whereas USPS still fulfilled its contractual obligations with Amazon.
The Justice Department, arguing on behalf of the Postal Service, agreed a true de minimis standard was 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 Biden administration further said 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.
In its Groff v. DeJoy ruling, the Supreme Court formally ended the de minimis test, with Justice Samuel Alito writing in the majority opinion that a literal interpretation of that precedent would suggest “even a pittance might be too much for an employer to be forced to endure.” He added employers like USPS cannot simply show that other employees are impacted by an accommodation to prove it would create an undue hardship. Instead, it must demonstrate a practical effect on the conduct of the business. In a concurring opinion, Justice Sonia Sotomayor noted that in some cases labor is the most important factor in the conduct of a business and therefore an impact on the workforce, in some cases, would prove a sufficient burden.
The court also clarified USPS would not be able to suggest an accommodation was overly burdensome because its employees were biased against the religion being accommodated. Finally, the court said employers cannot simply say that one particular accommodation created an undue burden, but must consider additional recourses.
“Faced with an accommodation request like Groff’s, an employer must do more that [sic] conclude that forcing other employees to work overtime would constitute an undue hardship,” Alito wrote. “Consideration of other options would also be necessary.”
In kicking the case to the lower court, the justices suggested USPS could consider incentive pay or coordinating with nearby post offices to identify more employees who could cover Groff’s Sunday shifts. USPS must consider options such as voluntary shift swapping before it could conclude it was facing an undue hardship.
Alito noted the decision was not “foreclosing the possibility that USPS will prevail,” but it was “appropriate to leave it to the lower courts to apply our clarified context-specific standard.” A district court originally ruled against Groff and an appeals court affirmed that decision before the Supreme Court took the case.
Felicia Lott, a USPS spokesperson, praised the decision and said the agency expects to win when the case reaches its conclusion.
“We agree with the Supreme Court’s clarification, which accepts the arguments we made before the court, and which is fully consistent with the standard we apply when seeking to accommodate the sincerely held religious beliefs, observances, and practices of our employees," Lott said. "For those reasons, and because we believe the lower court will conclude that providing the requested accommodation here would impose a substantial burden on the Postal Service, we are confident that the Postal Service will again prevail when the case is remanded.”
The court declined to accept either the government’s or the plaintiff’s definition of undue hardship, instead stressing that its fellow judges should closely examine the context of each case and how businesses are impacted. They noted the previous threshold forced “the denial of even minor accommodations in many cases,” which made it more difficult for members of minority faiths to enter the job market.
The case had 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 court noted it was its first opportunity in 50 years to address the precedent set in Hardison. The Biden administration had cautioned the court against upending the intervening decades of case law and Alito stressed that much of the precedents established by the EEOC would be unaffected by the justices’ ruling.
Aaron Street, Groff’s attorney, praised the court’s decision, saying it would have vast impacts for workers across the country.
“This is an important victory for Americans of all faiths, who may now follow their religious consciences in the workplace,” Streett said. “It is especially gratifying that the court was unanimous in interpreting the Civil Rights Act according to its plain language, holding that employers must accommodate religious practices absent an ‘undue hardship’ on the ‘conduct of the business.’"
This story was updated on June 29 at 6:37 p.m.