On August 17, the New York City Council enacted legislation which will make it easier for employees in New York to require their employers to accommodate religious beliefs. This would include Sabbath and holiday observance, religious clothing, headgear, facial hair, prayer during the workday, and other religious practices.

The legislation, Int. No. 632-A, essentially makes it more difficult for New York City employers to prove that a particular religious accommodation presents an “undue hardship” in order to decline providing the accommodation. Under the new law, an “undue hardship” means “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).”  The legislation lists factors to be considered when determining whether or not an accommodation constitutes an undue hardship:

  • the identifiable cost of the accommodation, including the costs of loss of productivity and of retaining or hiring employees or transferring 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 law does provide that an accommodation would constitute an undue hardship if it would result in the inability of an employee to perform the essential functions of the position in which he or she is employed.

The law is part of New York City’s Human Rights Law, which is enforceable by the New York City Human Rights Commission. New York City employees also may sue employers under the law directly in court.

The legislation is currently on Mayor Bloomberg’s desk and is awaiting his signature. He has indicated he intends to sign the legislation, and it will then go into effect immediately.