Why it matters

An employer did not run afoul of federal law by shortening an employee's workday—and decreasing her pay as a result—as a reasonable accommodation of her religious needs, an Illinois federal court ruled. A Muslim employee objected when her shift was changed from 7 a.m.–4 p.m. to 9 a.m.–6 p.m., as she needed to be at a daily religious program held between 4 and 6 p.m. Her employer agreed to shorten her shift to end at 4 p.m. and decreased her pay accordingly. She was later fired after an injury caused her to miss work and the parties disagreed about time off. In her complaint, the employee claimed that the employer engaged in religious discrimination because shortening her workday diminished her earnings. But the court sided with the employer, finding the schedule modification constituted a reasonable accommodation even with the decrease in pay. No authority required the employee be permitted to work as many hours as she would have otherwise been entitled to, the court said, granting summary judgment on the religious discrimination claim.

Detailed discussion

At Concentra Health Services in Chicago, Timika Smith was hired as a front office specialist, working Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. A Muslim and a member of the Moorish Science Temple of America, Smith was expected to participate in daily religious programs that began between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. On some occasions, she would pick up her daughter from school before going to the program.

In 2014, Concerta determined that it was unnecessary to have a dedicated front office specialist prior to 9 a.m. because two other employees—medical assistants—could perform those functions for the limited number of customers that came during that time period. As a result, Smith's shift was changed to 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Smith objected, explaining that she needed to be at her temple prior to 6 p.m. each day and sometimes needed to pick up her daughter. Concerta offered to let Smith take a break to fulfill her prayer accommodations but ultimately agreed to shorten her shift to 4 p.m. Her pay was decreased accordingly. Smith asked to switch to a medical assistant role, but was not certified for the position and there were no openings. Later in the year, Smith was injured in a car accident and had work restrictions as a result. She later took Family and Medical Leave Act leave and was ultimately terminated for failing to return when her leave ended.

She filed suit, alleging that she was discriminated against based on her religion because Concentra failed to provide her with a reasonable accommodation. Although disputes existed as to whether Smith refused to work after 4 p.m. because of her religious beliefs or her need to pick up her daughter, the court assumed without deciding that Smith could make out a prima facie case of discrimination.

The "undisputed facts establish that Concentra reasonably accommodated Smith's religious practices," U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Johnson Coleman ruled. "A reasonable accommodation is one that 'eliminates the conflict between employment requirements and religious practices.' A reasonable accommodation need not be an employee's preferred accommodation or the most beneficial accommodation for the employee; once the employer offers an alternative that reasonably accommodates the employee's religious needs the statutory inquiry is at an end."

After Smith informed her employer that the new schedule would not be viable as a result of her personal and religious obligations, Concentra allowed Smith to end her shift at 4 p.m. "This adjustment eliminated the conflict between Smith's schedule and her religious obligations and thus constituted a reasonable accommodation," the court said.

Judge Coleman rejected Smith's argument that the shorter workday was not a reasonable accommodation because it diminished her earnings, as "no authority require[s] that reasonable accommodations permit an employee to work as many hours as they would otherwise be entitled to."

Neither was Concentra required to accommodate Smith in a different manner so that she could retain her previous schedule, the court said, either by letting her keep her hours or letting her switch to a medical assistant position. The employer set forth undisputed facts that a front office specialist was not needed from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. and that it was necessary to have that position filled later in the day, as well as the fact there were no open medical assistant positions. "Accordingly, accommodating Smith in this manner would have imposed costs on Concentra sufficient to constitute an undue hardship," the court wrote. "It is well established that an employer is not required to engage in reasonable accommodations that would require imposing shift or job changes on other employees."

The court granted summary judgment in favor of the employer on Smith's religious discrimination claim. However, the court let the plaintiff's claims of discrimination based on a disability in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act—by failing to accommodate her disability and terminating her based on the disability—move forward.

To read the opinion and order in Smith v. Concentra, Inc., click here.