You Accommodate Your Employees, But Do They Accommodate Your Customers?
Late last month we posted on Indiana's "Religious Freedom" bill. Since then, the bill has been amended and states (including Maine) with similar pending legislation have reconsidered the propriety of such legislation. Additionally, recently the New York Times published an article focusing on delays and disruptions that were/are occurring on flights when passengers are refusing seat assignments or requesting seat changes for religious reasons.
With the notoriety that these religious accommodation issues are creating one can assume that the number of public accommodation claims that are filed will increase—and not just in states with "religious freedom" laws. When speaking with in-house counsel and HR Directors we most often discuss accommodations from an ADA standpoint—focusing on an employer's responsibilities to participate in an interactive dialogue concerning a disabled employee's need for an accommodation. Limiting the term "accommodation" to only the interactive process with employees, however, is insufficient. Employers should be training all employees on the duties that accompany client and customer's rights to accommodations—i.e. public accommodations. 42 U.S.C. § 2000a(a) provides: "All persons shall be entitled to the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, and accommodations of any place of public accommodation . . . without discrimination or segregation on the ground of race, color, religion, or national origin."
While employment attorneys most often focus specifically on the training that needs to be provided to govern interactions between co-workers, we often leave client/customer interaction training to the organization because these issues are "culture" specific. But are your company's employees trained in how to respond if a customer requests an accommodation in the form of: not sitting next to or near a certain individual based on religious beliefs; not being waited on or cared for by a person of specific race, gender, or national origin; use of a restroom based on of gender-identity as opposed to assigned sex at birth? How would your company's employees respond to a customer request of this nature?
The issue, and lack of training, may not only create a public relations nightmare for your company but also liability under state and federal law. Additionally, these random customer requests may not be the only area where accommodation liability could be. Employers should also check their policies and procedures that could subtly be discriminatory. Companies that require customers to present a drivers' license as the sole acceptable means of identification for purposes of paying by check (yes, some people still do pay by check) could be discriminatory as to individuals with vision impairment.
If you currently service the public in any way, be mindful of how public accommodation laws play into your work environment. Verrill Dana's Labor & Employment practice group regularly handles these accommodation-based issues and is happy to discuss best practices.