Attorneys for a former letter carrier are telling the Supreme Court the Postal Service didn’t go far enough to accommodate his religious beliefs when it scheduled him to work Sundays.
That case may soon decide whether USPS or other employers in or out of government should face a higher bar to demonstrate whether a religious accommodation request would become an “undue hardship” for its business.
The legal team for Gerald Groff, a former rural letter carrier in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, argued employers should only be able to claim an undue burden if a religious accommodation requires “significant difficulty or expense,” which is the same standard for disability accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Employers, under current law, only need to prove a “more than a de minimis cost” to demonstrate that religious accommodation would be an undue hardship.
Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar told the court that when Groff refused to deliver packages on Sundays, it created “direct, concrete burdens” on other mail carriers who had to stay on their shifts longer to make deliveries.
“That caused problems with the timely delivery of mail and actually produced employee retention problems,” she said.
Prelogar said one mail carrier working in the same post office as Groff quit, and another carrier transferred to a new post office. A third filed a union grievance.
“This was not some minor inconvenience to the Postal Service. The accommodation here had manifold impacts both on coworkers and on USPS,” she said.
Groff’s attorney Aaron Streett said the government’s de minimis standard allows employers to “deny accommodations far short of any fair meaning of undue hardship.”
Streett argued that discrepancy in standards for disability and religious accommodations means an employer could grant a diabetic employee’s request for snack breaks under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), but deny prayer breaks for another employee.
“There’s no reason religious workers should receive lesser protection than those covered by other accommodation statutes,” Streett said.
USPS first hired Groff in 2010 as a temporary relief carrier, a part-time, non-career position that covers routes when full-time career mail carriers are absent.
He left the job in October 2011, but was re-hired by USPS in April 2012. Later that year, he became a rural carrier associate (RCA) — another part-time role that covers for regular carriers.
USPS in 2013 reached a deal with Amazon to deliver packages on Sundays. The National Rural Letter Carriers’ Association signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) in May 2016 requiring all RCAs to be available to work Sundays and deliver Amazon packages.
Lower courts have ruled in favor of USPS, but Justice Clarence Thomas, during oral arguments on Tuesday, expressed some concern about employers having to meet two different standards for religious and disability accommodations.
“It does seem a little odd that under the ADA, we have the same term, undue hardship,” Thomas said. “It seems as though that there would be at least some comparison to the treatment of undue hardship under [the] ADA, and there’d be some similarity with Title VII [of the Civil Rights Act].”
Justices will also have to determine if USPS sufficiently demonstrated an undue burden in this case by showing Groff’s requested accommodation shifted more work onto Groff’s coworkers.
While several justices tried to quantify an undue hardship in terms of the financial cost to the employer, several justices asked whether morale issues brought on by short-staffing should also factor into the undue burden standard.
“Anyone seeing delivery people work during the holidays, if you pay any attention, most of them are exhausted at the end of their day. It costs to run extra hours, and it cost to do more work and that cost can’t be quantified always in money,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor said.
Streett told the justices that decreased morale to the point that employees quit would be an example of a religious accommodation having a “concrete effect” on the workforce.
“It’s not enough to have morale issues, it’s not enough to just have grumbling. But if the employer becomes short-handed, or if the employees become so overburdened that they can’t carry out their job, then that has an effect on the business,” Streett said. “It doesn’t need to be quantifiable in dollars and cents, but these are all context-specific cases.”
Prelogar said that during the Postal Service’s year-end peak holiday season, Groff’s Sunday shifts mostly fell on one other carrier or sometimes the postmaster. She said the postmaster also called other regional post offices trying to find volunteers for each Sunday that Groff was scheduled to work.
“Once you start taking away their weekend off, that led to the unrest and the disruption of the workflow that we saw here. And when [the] petitioner was absent, they had to stay on their routes longer and later, going out after dark for routes that were unfamiliar to get those packages delivered,” Prelogar said. “That counts as real-world impact and undue hardship under any reasonable standard.”
Dawn Solowey, a labor and employment attorney with the firm Seyfarth, told Federal News Network that the Supreme Court, if it ruled in Groff’s favor, would overturn more than 50 years of legal precedent.
Conservative justices on the court, however, have expressed an interest in revisiting the de minimus standard for religious accommodations.
“It may not be as uphill a battle as it might otherwise seem,” Solowey said. “What the justices were wrestling with across the board is what standard do they put in place as the operative standard, in light of the fact that there’s always going to be a context-based inquiry that happens, regardless of what that standard is.”
The court’s liberal wing, including Justice Elena Kagan, said plaintiffs face a high bar in overturning longstanding legal precedent over statutory, non-Constitutional matters.
“This has been, for decades, the rule. Congress has had the opportunity to change it. Congress has not done so. You can count on, like, a finger, how many times we have overruled a statutory ruling in that context,” Kagan said.
Conservative justices, including Justice Amy Coney Barrett, expressed concern about employees’ religious freedoms, but also showed concern about any kind of standard that would be too limiting for employers to stay in business or meet customers’ demands.
“A contextual inquiry would say we might treat the rural grocery store differently than we would treat Amazon. Or maybe our financially floundering Post Office gets treated differently than Amazon. But circumstances can change, the context can change, and why can’t the employer come back and say, ‘Well, I’ve been accommodating you by paying someone else $1 extra an hour, or time-and-a-half — whatever it is — but things have changed, and I can no longer offer you that accommodation.'” Barrett said.
Justice Samuel Alito, however, suggested that in most cases, religious accommodations may just come down to “dollars and cents.”
“If the employer is willing to pay people to take a shift, then the shift can be covered, and everybody will be happy,” Alito said. “The employee who wants a religious accommodation gets a religious accommodation, and the other employees who cover the shift, they get more money, and so they’re happy. So doesn’t it come down to dollars and cents?”
Justice Neil Gorsuch said he recognized USPS’s long-term financial challenges, but said many employers might have to “pay a premium wage to get anybody to work on Saturday or Sunday.”
“Yes, the employer’s always going to have to pay a premium wage, but it’s going to have to pay a premium wage for Saturday and Sunday work no matter what, because it’s just hard to get anybody to work those days, because some people want to go to church, and others want to go to their kid’s soccer games,” Gorsuch said.
Sotomayor suggested an undue burden for USPS might look different compared to a large, private-sector company like Amazon.
“As much as some people might want to provide absolute clarity, there’s none that we can give, is there? Because it’s all contextual,” Sotomayor said. “Regrettably, the Post Office has not worked for a profit in many, many years. There’s even questions of closing it down. And even that dollar extra could close it down. And one could argue that paying a premium wage by Amazon makes no difference, but at a certain point, we affect the corporation’s bottom line.”