Feds file discrimination lawsuit against Winterville concrete company

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has filed a lawsuit against Greenville Ready Mix Concrete Inc. of Winterville for allegedly discriminating against a former employee based on his religious convictions.

Michael Cole says he was fired from his job as a truck driver after he refused to work on a Saturday. In February 2014, Cole became a Seventh-day Adventist and was baptized into the faith, which strictly observes the Sabbath on Saturday. Members refrain from work between sundown Friday and sundown Saturday, and Cole informed the company of his new faith, requesting to be excused from working Saturdays, according to the lawsuit.

Cole had not worked many Saturdays, said Lynette Barnes, an attorney for the Charlotte branch of the EEOC, the federal agency that enforces federal laws prohibiting discrimination in employment. Barnes said Cole’s normal work schedule did not include Saturdays, and through all of 2013 until he became a Seventh-day Adventist, he had worked only two Saturdays.

According to the EEOC, Cole was scheduled to work on Saturday, March 22, 2014. When he informed the company that he could not work that day because of his religious beliefs, “the company discharged him for that reason,” the agency said in its complaint filed last week. The company was required to make other arrangements under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Barnes said.

“Under Title VII, employers are required to provide accommodations for employees who have a need under their religion, so long as the accommodation does not cause undue burden under law,” Barnes said. Excusing Cole from Saturday work was not an “undue burden,” since he rarely worked Saturdays and his set schedule did not require him to do so, she said.

The suit comes after mediation between Greenville Ready Mix and Cole failed to resolve the dispute.

Mary-Anne Leon, the lawyer representing Greenville Ready Mix, said she could not speak in detail about pending litigation, but said the company would fight the lawsuit.

“We’ve all along the way disagreed with the way the government interpreted the facts, and continue to disagree,” said Leon, of The Leon Law Firm in Greenville.

Leon said the company invited Cole to come back to work during the mediation process, but he declined. The company has 60 days to file a response to the lawsuit.

Jeff Hirsch a professor at UNC’s School of Law who specializes in employment law, said the facts as outlined by the EEOC make it look like the agency has a pretty good case. But, Hirsch noted, “In general, it’s hard for employees to win these cases.”

The legal test for whether a religious accommodation constitutes an “undue burden” on an employer is not difficult to meet, Hirsch said. If the employer can show that there was more than a trivial cost to accommodating the religious need, he said, then the employer is not required to.

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