On August 30, 2011, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg signed the "Workplace Religious Freedom Act"  (Int. 632-A) into law clarifying what requirements employers are required to meet to demonstrate that they have done all that is necessary to make a reasonable attempt to accommodate the bona fide religious needs of employees.

Under pre-existing law, employers were required to provide accommodation so long as it did not cause an "undue hardship" for the employer. However, since "undue hardship" was not clearly defined, it was generally viewed as a requirement that the "de minimis cost or burden" standard be applied.

The new City law amends sections 8-102 and 8-107 of the New York City Human Rights Law ("NYCHRL") to defines what "undue hardship" means:

"Undue hardship" shall mean "an accommodation requiring significant expense or difficulty (including a significant interference with the safe or efficient operation of the workplace or a violation of a bona fide seniority system)." Factors to be considered in determining whether the accommodation constitutes an undue economic hardship shall include, but not be limited to:

  • The identifiable cost of the accommodation, including the costs of loss of productivity and the cost of retaining or hiring of employees or transferring of employees from one facility to another, in relation to the size and operating cost of the employer.
  • The number of individuals who will need the particular accommodation to a sincerely held religious observance or practice, and
  • For an employer with multiple facilities, the degree to which the geographic separateness or administrative or fiscal relationship of the facilities will make the accommodation more difficult or expensive.

The Act also provides that employers in New York City can establish that a religious accommodation will result in an "undue hardship" by showing that it will result in the employee's inability to perform the essential functions of his or her position.

Potential remedies for violating the law include reinstatement, back pay, compensatory damages, attorney's fees, and employers could be subject to a civil penalty of $125,000.

From a practical standpoint, employers should consult with human resources experts to ensure compliance by making sure that anti-discrimination policies are up to date, and job descriptions should be tailored to accurately describe portions of the job duties that involve attendance, availability, and dress / grooming requirements.

This law is of particular significance to Muslims and Sikhs who have faced an increase in discrimination since the events of 9/11, and will apply to both public and private sector employers.

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