Job Reassignment with Reduced Hours and Pay: “Punishment” or “Reasonable Accommodation”?

John Melcon

It’s been said that one person’s trash is another person’s treasure. A similar principle applies in employment law, where managers and workers sometimes develop contradictory perceptions about employment decisions. What a manager views as a reasonable accommodation (i.e., of an employee’s religion or disability), the employee might consider punishment or discrimination. Thing is, it’s generally illegal to discriminate against workers because of their religion or disability, so sometimes it falls to a court (or worse, a jury) to sort out whose perception is right. That’s not always an easy task.

A federal district court in Colorado faced just such a task when a grocery store clerk sued her employer, Safeway, alleging a failure to accommodate her religious beliefs. The employee, a Jehovah’s Witness, objected to participating in the store’s holiday fundraising efforts, which required her to ask customers in the checkout lane to donate “Turkey Bucks” or “Santa Bucks.” (Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t believe in celebrating certain holidays.) Safeway offered the employee several options, including reassignment to the self-checkout area during the holiday season. But since the self-checkout kiosks closed two hours before the end of the employee’s typical shift, this would have meant a reduction in hours and pay. The employee refused the offer and instead took unpaid leave for the holidays.

In her lawsuit, the employee claimed that neither the self-checkout option nor the unpaid leave option was a “reasonable accommodation” under Title VII. Instead, she characterized Safeway’s proposals as “punishment” for her beliefs. The court disagreed, ruling that the self-checkout option was a reasonable one. Consistent with other cases, the court noted that a workplace accommodation may be reasonable even if it results in some reduction in pay or isn’t the employee’s preference. (Note: things may be different in the disability accommodation context, where the standard for “reasonable” is higher.) Because Safeway’s self-checkout offer was adequate, the court didn’t weigh in on whether unpaid leave can constitute a reasonable accommodation, a debated legal issue currently working its way through several courts.

The case is a reminder that although employers need not always give workers their preferred accommodations, employers should nevertheless think carefully—and seek counsel—before assuming a particular offer is “reasonable” under the law.

The case is Medina v. Safeway Inc., No. 20-cv-03726-NYW (D. Colo., March 7, 2022).