New York City has adopted a new, higher standard that employers must meet if they decline to accommodate an employee’s religious observance or practice on the grounds that the accommodation would constitute an “undue hardship.” On August 30, 2011, Mayor Bloomberg signed Local Law 54, which amended the definition of undue hardship in the New York City Human Rights law to match the definition provided in the comparable state law.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Bill of 1964, as amended, requires employers to reasonably accommodate the religious practices of an employee or prospective employee, unless doing so would impose an undue hardship upon the employer. Under Title VII, an undue hardship occurs if the employer would incur anything other than minimal costs in accommodating an employee’s religious practices. The New York State Human Rights Law, however, provides that an employer may only be excused from the duty to accommodate the observance or practice if the accommodation would require “significant expense or difficulty.” Local Law 54 brings the standard for showing undue hardship up from the easier Title VII standard to the more onerous standard set by the New York State law.

The law also now includes a non-definitive list of factors that must be considered when determining whether a religious accommodation poses an undue hardship: 1) the identifiable cost of the accommodation in relation to the size of the employer (this includes the costs of retaining, hiring, or transferring employees); 2) the number of employees who would be provided the accommodation; and 3) the degree to which the existence of multiple facilities will affect the difficulty or expense of providing the accommodation.

The amendment also makes clear that an undue hardship exists if granting the requested accommodation would result in the employee not being able to perform the essential functions of the job.

The text of the law, which was passed by a unanimous city council, is available here.