Shifts, Seniority, And Religious Accommodations

Written on 08/07/2021
Will Aitchison

Clinton Bloomfield was conditionally hired as a Newark police officer on July 31, 2017. Bloomfield’s employment was contingent upon his successful completion of training at the New Jersey State Police Academy.

Bloomfield’s description of his religious beliefs is that he practices Judaism and is a member of The Church of God and Saints of Christ. The tenets of his religion do not permit him to work on the religion’s Sabbath – sundown on Friday nights to sundown on Saturday nights.

Under the collective bargaining agreement between the City and Lodge 12 of the FOP, officers work a schedule of four workdays followed by two days off. Because of the way the schedule rotates, the 4/2 schedule involves work on Bloomfield’s religion’s Sabbath.

During his recruit training, Bloomfield requested a number of accommodations from the City that would have relieved him from the obligation of working on his religion’s Sabbath. The City denied the requests, writing to Bloomfield that “as a recruit, you must complete ALL mandatory training to graduate from the Academy. When you accepted employment with the Newark Police Division, you acknowledged in writing that you understood and accepted that as a Newark police officer you are required to be available for a 24/7 schedule and that your work schedule will include working days, afternoons, nights, weekends, and/or holidays as required by the City.”

When Bloomfield failed to appear for required training, the City terminated his employment. Bloomfield appealed to the state Civil Service Commission, contending that the City had an obligation under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination to assign him to a schedule that accommodated his religious beliefs.

A New Jersey Appeals Court upheld the Commission’s decision sustaining Bloomfield’s termination. The Court held that under the Law Against Discrimination, employers cannot impose any condition upon employees that would require a person to violate sincerely held religious practice or religious observance, including but not limited to the observance of any particular day or days or any portion thereof as a Sabbath or other holy day in accordance with the requirements of the religion or religious belief. However, an exception exists if an employer cannot reasonably accommodate ‘the employee’s religious observance or practice without undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business’ after putting forth a ‘bona fide effort’ to accommodate. An ‘undue hardship’ is defined as ‘an accommodation requiring unreasonable expense or difficulty, unreasonable interference with the safe or efficient operation of the workplace or a violation of a bona fide seniority system or a violation of any provision of a bona fide collective bargaining agreement.’

“Bloomfield requested to be excused for multiple weeks throughout the year when respondent otherwise mandates all officers be available to ensure it is prepared to handle whatever public safety issues may arise in the city. Witnesses explained the Department’s staffing needs, the existence of staffing shortages, the manner in which filling staffing needs is governed and limited by the contract, and the need for officers to be available to work at all times due to the normal and unique safety concerns presented daily in Newark. In addition, they explained that permitting Bloomfield to use vacation time to accommodate his religious observance ‘would violate’ the CNA’s seniority and vacation provisions. An accommodation which results in the violation of a contract provision constitutes an undue hardship.

“The testimony of these witnesses concerning the Department’s safety and operational concerns, and the manner in which accommodating Bloomfield’s religious beliefs will violate the contract, satisfies the City’s burden of establishing the accommodation was a hardship. Contrary to Bloomfield’s assertion, there is substantial credible evidence supporting the Commission’s finding that the City made a bona fide effort to accommodate Bloomfield’s religious beliefs and the City demonstrated that providing an accommodation would constitute an undue hardship.”

In re Bloomfield, 2021 WL 2182984 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. 2021).

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