Lawsuit settled over religious discrimination at Mesaba Airlines

A federal judge has approved a settlement in a discrimination lawsuit involving Mesaba Airlines.

U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank ruled Tuesday that $130,000 can be distributed to five people the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said were victims of discrimination.

The lawsuit, which was filed in September 2008, claimed that Mesaba violated the Civil Rights Act when the company terminated customer service agent Laura Vallejos because she refused to work on the Jewish Sabbath.

Mesaba, a subsidiary of Delta Air Lines, had a policy that prohibited employees from making voluntary shift swaps during their first 90 days of work.

MPR News is Member Supported

What does that mean? The news, analysis and community conversation found here is funded by donations from individuals. Make a gift of any amount today to support this resource for everyone.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said Mesaba's policy against shift swapping was discriminatory because it led hiring managers to reject job applicants when they expressed a need to attend religious services.

EEOC Attorney Nick Pladson said four others were not hired by Mesaba based on potential work conflicts with religious observances. Pladson said the airline needed to make reasonable accommodation for the woman's religious practices.

"In this case, Mesaba Airlines didn't do that," Pladson said. "They essentially said 'we have a policy in place that prohibits this, so you can either work it or you can lose your job.'"

Pladson said Mesaba should have made a reasonable attempt to accommodate the woman's religious needs.

"Employers are not required to go to any lengths to accomodates an employee's religious observances, or anything like that," he said. "But they are required to engage in an interactive process to determine whether something could be done - whether some accommodation can be made that's going to allow a person to either obtain or maintain employment."

The airline has since changed the policy to allow shift swaps for new employees. In a statement, Mesaba said it is pleased to reach an agreement and looks forward to working with the commission to improve the workplace.

"Mesaba Airlines provides equal employment opportunities to all applicants for employment and has a long standing history of being respectful and accommodating to religious beliefs and practices. This agreement is a demonstration of Mesaba's commitment," the statement read.

During litigation, the commission also found four Christian applicants who applied for similar jobs but were allegedly rejected because they expressed a desire for their work schedules to allow time to attend Sunday church services. All five people will receive settlement money.

"Employees should not be forced to choose between practicing their faith and keeping or getting a job," Stuart J. Ishimaru, the commission's acting chairman, said in a statement.