The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC’) has filed a lawsuit against United Healthcare Services (“United Healthcare”) alleging that the company violated federal law by refusing to grant religious accommodations to a remote worker. EEOC v. United Healthcare Services, Inc., Case No.2:23-cv-03010-MHW-KAJ. This lawsuit is interesting, in part, because it will apply the heightened burden standard provided in the Supreme Court’s decision in Groff v. DeJoy (link to previous article here).
The EEOC’s lawsuit alleges that United Healthcare violated Title VII by refusing to grant an employee’s request for exemption from the company’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate. A supervisor of clinical administration at United Healthcare performed her job entirely from home since 2018. She had no job duties that required her to enter United Healthcare facilities or meet face-to-face with coworkers or patients. In 2021, United Healthcare implemented a COVID vaccination requirement, however, the policy stated that it did not apply to full-time telecommuters. Nonetheless, she was directed to get the vaccine. The remote employee stated her religious objections to vaccination and filed two requests for exemption. These requests were denied, and she was ultimately terminated.
The EEOC alleges that this conduct violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination because of an individual’s religion and requires employers to reasonably accommodate an employee’s religious observance or practice unless doing so would cause an undue hardship.
In Groff v. DeJoy, the Supreme Court recently restated what defines undue hardship. To establish undue hardship United Healthcare will have to show that granting the supervisor’s religious accommodation would be a “substantial burden,” more than “de minimis” and would result in “substantially increased costs” for the business. To determine this, the court undertakes a fact-specific inquiry that considers the overall context of an employer’s business, including the accommodations at issue and their practical impact considering the nature, size, and operating cost of an employer. An employer may need to show that the accommodation would result in substantially increased costs in relation to the conduct of the business.
In this case, the United Healthcare supervisor worked a fully remote job without any in-person interaction or the need to enter United Healthcare facilities. Further, the vaccine policy allegedly exempted remote workers. The fact that the supervisor worked remotely suggests that exempting them from the vaccine requirement would not cause the company undue hardship. This factor is likely to be important when the court undertakes the fact-specific inquiry set forth in Groff v. DeJoy. It is presently unclear on what basis United Healthcare will argue that granting the exemption would have presented a substantial burden.
This case highlights a few important principles for employers:
- The EEOC, a federal agency, will investigate an employee’s charge of discrimination. If discrimination has occurred, and the agency is unable to resolve the matter through the conciliation process it may file a lawsuit against the company (although, more often than not, the EEOC provides a Right to Sue letter authorizing the complainant to file a lawsuit individually against the employer).
- Under Title VII, employers are required to accommodate the religious practice of their employees unless doing so would impose an undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.
- Following Groff v. DeJoy, an employer must show that granting an accommodation would cause a “substantial burden.” This standard considers the accommodation at issue and its practical impact, in light of the nature, size, and operating cost of an employer. An employer may need to show that the accommodation would result in substantially increased costs in relation to the conduct of the business.
- As part of this fact-specific inquiry, the court is likely to consider an employee’s remote or work-from-home status, in determining whether the accommodation causes a substantial burden.
- If an employee requests accommodation for religious reasons under Title VII, it may be prudent to speak with an employment attorney to evaluate whether the accommodation would cause an undue hardship for your business.
If you need more guidance or information, contact the employment law attorneys at General Counsel, P.C. today at 703-556-0411, email@example.com, or use this Contact Us Form. Attorneys at General Counsel, PC are specialized in labor and employment law and have experience working with businesses, non-profits, and individuals throughout the DC Metropolitan area and across Virginia, specifically in Fairfax County, Arlington, and Loudoun County.