At this time of year, it seems a number of religious holidays are occurring. And the holidays seem to span many religions including:

  • Hindu Dasara;
  • Jewish Yom Kippur;
  • Catholic Christian’s All Saints Day;
  • Islamic Mawlid an Nabi; and
  • Wiccan Winter Solstice/Yule

Because of the number and diversity of these religious holidays, you may be challenged with managing requests for time off to accommodate various religious observances.

However, it’s not just for holidays that we may be asked to make religious accommodation.  For example, individuals who are Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t observe holidays or birthdays.  It would be reasonable to excuse such a person from participating in birthday celebrations at work.

Here are some tips for managing these requests:

  1. Develop a policy that tells employees who they may see to discuss a religious accommodation. Included in this policy should be a statement that if they would like to observe a religious holiday not already observed by the company they may request unpaid time off or may use any paid time off benefits they have available to receive pay.
  2. Internally, develop a procedure for assessing whether or not granting the request would create an undue hardship.  This has to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis and it is encouraged that you discuss the request with the employee.
  3. Train your supervisors and managers on what a religious accommodation request looks like and what the procedure is for how to address that request.
  4. Be flexible in the administration of your policies.  For example, if an employee requests an accommodation to wear a head covering because their religion requires it, consider allowing that person to do so as long as it doesn’t interfere with the individual’s ability to safely perform the job.
  5. Be proactive in suggesting alternative accommodations if you are unable to provide the employee’s requested accommodation.

While you are not obligated to accommodate every request for religious accommodation that comes across your desk, you do need to make sure that the reason for denying the accommodation is because it would be an undue hardship on the company.  The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) describes undue hardship as:

“An accommodation would pose an undue hardship if it –would cause more than de minimis cost on the operation of the employer’s business. Factors relevant to undue hardship may include the type of workplace, the nature of the employee’s duties, the identifiable cost of the accommodation in relation to the size and operating costs of the employer, and the number of employees who will in fact need a particular accommodation.

Costs to be considered include not only direct monetary costs but also the burden on the conduct of the employer’s business. For example, courts have found undue hardship where the accommodation diminishes efficiency in other jobs, infringes on other employees’ job rights or benefits, impairs workplace safety, or causes co-workers to carry the accommodated employee’s share of potentially hazardous or burdensome work. Whether the proposed accommodation conflicts with another law will also be considered.

To prove undue hardship, the employer will need to demonstrate how much cost or disruption a proposed accommodation would involve. An employer cannot rely on potential or hypothetical hardship when faced with a religious obligation that conflicts with scheduled work, but rather should rely on objective information. A mere assumption that many more people with the same religious practices as the individual being accommodated may also seek accommodation is not evidence of undue hardship.

If an employee’s proposed accommodation would pose an undue hardship, the employer should explore alternative accommodations.”

Additionally, the EEOC provides guidance on religious discrimination and making religious accommodations. On their website, you can find guidance on making accommodations for religious grooming and garb as well as policy and guidance in general.

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