Federal Court Enters $130,000 Consent Decree Ending EEOC Lawsuit Against Mesaba Airlines

Delta Subsidiary Refused to Allow Shift Swaps for Sabbath Observances, Agency Charged

MINNEAPOLIS – Judge Donovan W. Frank of the federal district court in Minneapolis late yesterday entered a consent decree resolving a religious discrimination lawsuit brought by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) against Mesaba Airlines. The decree provides for the distribution of $130,000 to five discrimination victims as well as injunctive relief.

In its lawsuit, filed on September 30, 2008, the EEOC alleged that Mesaba Airlines, a regional airline and wholly owned subsidiary of Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines, violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 when it terminated a Jewish customer service agent (CSA) because she refused to work on the Jewish Sabbath (EEOC v. Mesaba Airlines, D. Minn. No.08-cv-5308 [DWF/AJB].) The EEOC’s case focused upon an alleged Mesaba policy prohibiting employees from making voluntary shift swaps if they were within their initial 90 days of employment, also known as their probationary period.

Many practitioners of the Jewish faith, like the charging party in this case, observe the Sabbath from sundown on Friday until sundown on Saturday. Consistent with her religious beliefs, she refused to work past sundown on September 29, 2006, and was officially terminated by Mesaba on October 5, 2006. Shortly thereafter, she filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC’s Minneapolis Area Office.

The EEOC also alleged that Mesaba’s policy against shift swapping for probationary emp­loyees led hiring managers to reject job applicants when they expressed a need to attend religious services, such as Christian church services on Sunday mornings.

This “no shift swap” policy, the EEOC alleged, conflicted with Title VII, which requires an employer to reasonably accommodate an employee whose sincerely held religious belief or observance conflicts with a work requirement, unless providing the accommodation would create an undue hardship. During the litigation, the EEOC also identified four Christian applicants who applied for CSA positions but were allegedly rejected during interviews because they stated a desire for weekend shifts that would not conflict with Sunday church services.

“Employees should not be forced to choose between practicing their faith and keeping or getting a job,” said EEOC Acting Chairman Stuart J. Ishimaru. “As this suit shows, the EEOC vigorously enforces Title VII’s protection against religious discrimination.”

Mesaba has since dropped the challenged policy and no longer employs CSAs. The EEOC consent decree will require monitoring, training and other non-monetary remedies that will benefit current Mesaba Airlines employees.

“This case might have never arisen if Mesaba’s front-line managers had a better understanding of their obligation to make reasonable religious accommodations for employees who identify a conflict between their job and their religious beliefs,” said John Rowe, director of EEOC’s Chicago District who managed the administrative investigation preceding the lawsuit. “One of the most important provisions in this consent decree, therefore, is the requirement that Mesaba Airlines revise its policies and take steps to ensure future compliance with Title VII.”

EEOC Chicago District Regional Attorney John Hendrickson added, “When employees identify aspects of their religious beliefs that conflict with their employment, employers must engage these workers to explore solutions. When it is possible for employers to make reasonable accommodations without incurring undue hardships, they must do so. In such situations, employers who take a ‘my way or the highway’ approach do so at their peril.”

In addition to Hendrickson, the government’s litigation team included Associate Regional Attorney Jean Kamp and Supervisory Trial Attorney Diane Smason of the Chicago District Office, and Trial Attorney Nick Pladson of the agency’s Minneapolis Area Office. The EEOC’s Chicago District Office is responsible for processing charges of discrimination, administrative enforcement, and the conduct of agency litigation in Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, North Dakota and South Dakota, with Area Offices in Milwaukee and Minneapolis.

The EEOC enforces federal laws prohibiting employment discrimination. Further information about the EEOC is available on its web site at www.eeoc.gov.