October 26, 2021
On October 25, 2021, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) expanded its guidance on religious exemptions to employer vaccine mandates under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Guidance”). This Guidance describes in greater detail the framework under which the EEOC advises employers to resolve religious accommodation requests.
The EEOC emphasizes that whether an employee is entitled to a religious accommodation is an individualized determination to be made in light of the “particular facts of each situation.” Guidance at L.3. The agency also was careful to note that the Guidance is specific to employers’ obligations under Title VII and does not address rights and responsibilities under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act or state laws that impose a higher standard for “undue hardship” than Title VII.
The EEOC provided its views on the following questions.
Who makes a religious accommodation request, and what form must it take?
May an employer ask an employee for more information regarding a religious accommodation request?
Yes. An employer may ask for an explanation of how an employee’s religious beliefs conflict with a COVID-19 vaccination requirement. Id. at L.2. Furthermore, an employer may make a “limited factual inquiry” if there is an objective basis for questioning either: (1) the religious nature of the employee’s belief; or (2) the sincerity of an employee’s stated beliefs. Id.
No single factor is determinative. Id. The EEOC cautions that religious beliefs “may change over time,” “employees need not be scrupulous in their [religious] observance,” and “newly adopted or inconsistently observed practices may nevertheless be sincerely held.” Id.
What is an undue hardship under Title VII?
The Supreme Court has held that an employer is not required to provide an accommodation if the accommodation would impose more than a de minimis cost. Id. at L.3. The Guidance takes an expansive view of what types of costs might justify denying an accommodation. The EEOC suggests that such costs may include:
Furthermore, an employer “may take into account the cumulative cost or burden of granting accommodations to other employees,” but may not rely on the “mere assumption” that “more employees might seek religious accommodation” with respect to a vaccine requirement. Id. at L.4. Likewise, an employer cannot rely on “speculative hardships” to deny an accommodation, according to the EEOC, but must rely “on objective information,” considering factors such as whether the employee making the request works indoors or outdoors, in a solitary or group setting, or has close contact with others, especially “medically vulnerable individuals.”
If an employer grants one religious accommodation request from a COVID-19 vaccination requirement, must it grant all religious accommodation requests?
No. Religious accommodation determinations are individualized in nature and must focus on a specific employee’s request and whether accommodating the specific employee would impose an undue hardship. Id. When assessing whether granting an exemption would impair workplace safety, the EEOC advises considering, among other factors, the number of employees who are fully vaccinated, physically enter the workplace, and will need a particular accommodation.
Must an employer provide a requesting employee’s preferred religious accommodation?
No. An employer may choose any reasonable accommodation that would “resolve the conflict” between the a vaccination requirement and an employee’s sincerely held religious belief, though it “should consider the employee’s preference.” Id. at L.5. If an employer does not choose an employee’s preferred accommodation, it should explain to the employee why that accommodation is not granted. Id.
Can an employer discontinue a previously granted religious accommodation?
Yes. An employer may be able to discontinue an accommodation if the accommodation is no longer used for religious purposes or the accommodation subsequently imposes more than a de minimis cost. Id. at L.6. Employers also should be aware that an employee’s “religious beliefs and practices may evolve or change over time and may result in requests for additional or different religious accommodations.”
Questions the EEOC did not address include what steps large employers faced with tens of thousands of reasonable accommodation requests must take to satisfy the individualized-determination requirement; what may constitute reasonable accommodations for employees entitled to exemptions, particularly when community transmission is high; and how employers can comply with recordkeeping and privacy concerns under state and federal statutes, including how to receive and store employee vaccine and testing records.
The following Gibson Dunn attorneys assisted in preparing this client update: Eugene Scalia, Katherine V.A. Smith, Jason C. Schwartz, Jessica Brown, Andrew G. I. Kilberg, Zoë Klein, Chad C. Squitieri, Hannah Regan-Smith, and Kate Googins.
Gibson Dunn’s lawyers are available to assist in addressing any questions you may have regarding these developments. To learn more about these issues, please contact the Gibson Dunn lawyer with whom you usually work, or any of the following in the firm’s Administrative Law and Regulatory or Labor and Employment practice groups.
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