NOTE: We have an update to this blog post. Find it here. 

Businesses are made up of employees from various ethnic, racial and religious backgrounds.  With such a diverse work environment, it's important for companies to make sure they don't discriminate against certain employees and take care to give them the freedom to observe religious holidays. 

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Employers that refuse to grant employees time off to celebrate a religious holiday could be putting their business at risk for an employment discrimination lawsuit.  So what are the rules for granting employees time off to observe religious holidays?  Are employers required to pay employees for this time off?  The answers to these questions have been provided by an expert in the area of human resources and employee benefits.

How Title VII of the Civil Rights Act Impacts Religious Holidays

There is no federal law that requires an employer to give employees days off for religious holidays; however, under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, employers may not treat employees differently because of their religion affiliations, and employees cannot be required to participate or not participate in religious activity as a condition of employment.  Under Title VII, employers have an affirmative duty to provide a reasonable accommodation to employees for religious observances, such as requesting a day off to observe a religious holiday, unless the employer can demonstrate that providing such a reasonable accommodation would result in an "undue hardship" on the employer.  An accommodation may cause undue hardship if it is costly, compromises workplace safety, decreases workplace efficiency, infringes on the rights of other employees, or requires other employees to do more than their share of potentially hazardous or burdensome work.  Many states and municipalities also include requirements for employers to provide a reasonable accommodation for employees' religious observances.

Get Answers to the Most Commonly Asked Questions on Religious Discrimination in the Workplace

Requirements for Paid Time Off for Religious Holidays

There is no requirement under state or federal law mandating that the time off for religious observances be paid.  However, the requirements of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) must be followed.  Under the FLSA, an employer is not required to pay non-exempt employees for time off on a holiday, but only for time actually worked.  On the other hand, exempt employees who are given the day off must be paid their full weekly salary if they work any hours during the week in which the holiday falls.  Employees may use accrued paid time off or vacation for their absences due to religious holidays. 

What is a Reasonable Accommodation for Time Off for Religious Purposes?

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defines "reasonable accommodation" as "any adjustment to the work environment that will allow the employee to comply with his or her religious beliefs."  Employers should review the requests for time off with the workload to ensure that it will not cause an undue hardship to the business.  We recommend the following:

  1. Develop a policy stating the company's commitment to equal employment and that requests for time off for religious observances will be carefully considered and accommodated whenever possible.
  2. Require that employees request the time off in advance so that the department can consider the workload concerns and scheduling conflicts.
  3. If there are serious conflicts that will hinder the ability to get the work done, consider what accommodations could be made (i.e. scheduling substitute employees or allowing employees to change schedules with each other to cover for that time; allowing the employee to work a flexible schedule that day or week (come in earlier or later, shorter days, etc.) to be able to attend the important religious observances.

Review the EEOC Best Practices for Eradicating Religious Discrimination in the Workplace

The key is to attempt to find a form of reasonable accommodation whenever possible to allow employees the necessary time off to observe their faith during the important holidays unless the employer can demonstrate that it cannot be done because it poses an undue hardship to the business.