As the table at the bottom of this article illustrates, the number of employers recognizing religious holidays celebrated by minority groups is small, according to a survey by the Society for Human Resource Management.
Is that a problem? Probably not. Employers aren’t specifically required to recognize any particular holidays. However, depending upon your policies, you could be vulnerable to a religious discrimination charge. In a nutshell, you must be careful not to treat one religious group differently from another.
When is a Hardship “Undue”?
Here are some tests a court would consider when deciding whether you are justified in accommodating employees requesting a religious holiday that isn’t on your holiday schedule. Note: It’s easier to justify rejecting an accommodation request based on religion, than on a disability
Cost. What will you lose by granting a requested religious holiday? Will it be substantial in proportion to the size of your business?
Disruption. How difficult would it be to re-arrange employee work schedules, production schedules and other related issues to cover the absence of the employee requesting the day or days off?
Safety. Would the employee’s absence increase hazards to other employees in the workplace?
Contracts. Would granting the request force you to break any rules under, for example, a labor union contract due to the absence of the employee requesting time off?
What the Law States
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment discrimination based on religion, but doesn’t define what constitutes a religion. It does state, however, that it embraces “all aspects of religious observance and practice, as well as belief.” The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), meanwhile, maintains that religious practices “include moral or ethical beliefs about what is right and wrong which are sincerely held with the strength of traditional religious views.” In other words, the term is fairly open-ended.
If an employee asks you for a day off to observe a religious holiday that doesn’t happen to be on your holiday calendar, the EEOC does expect you to try to make a “reasonable accommodation,” just as you would for an employee with disabilities. You would be off the hook, however, if granting the request would cause an “undue hardship” to your business — a determination made on a case-by-case basis (see sidebar).
One popular way to deal with this issue is to offer employees one or two “floating” holidays — days they can elect to take off for any purpose, including birthdays. According to the SHRM survey, 43 percent of employers offer one floating holiday, and 29 percent offer two. Smaller proportions — 14, 9 and 5 percent, offer three, four and five floating holidays, respectively. (Floating holidays are not counted against employees’ personal day quota.)
Floating Holiday Issues
Following are some policy considerations regarding floating holidays:
- How many to give: There is no magic number. But your decision should be made in the context of your overall paid time off policy (PTO), including fixed holidays, personal days, sick days and vacation days. You could add a pair of floating holidays while pulling out two fixed holidays for no net change in PTO.
- Black-out days: You may have particular days of the year in which you need every hand on deck, and don’t permit floating holidays on those days. But if you need to set black-out days, be careful not to go overboard as that would defeat the purpose of the policy. Also be sure blackout days don’t correspond to known religious holidays that some employees might wish to tae.
- Accrual of holidays: You can treat floating holidays in the same way you treat vacation days, requiring employees to reach particular tenure thresholds before earning them.
- Carry-over of holiday allotments: To preserve the comparability to standard holidays, it may be best not to allow employees to bank unused floating holidays for future years. However, floating holidays should accrue over the course of each year in the same way as other forms of PTO, so that the employee gets credit for unused PTO the year he or she leaves the company.
As with any other personnel policy, how you handle floating holidays should be clearly documented in your employee handbook.
Floating holidays, while perhaps the most generous, aren’t the only way to accommodate an employee who wants to be away from work for a religious observance – particularly if it doesn’t require a full day. For example, you can also allow employees to adjust their work schedules on a given day by coming in early, working late, working through the lunch hour, or making up the hours by working longer days before or after the requested holiday. But again, be sure the arrangement is consistent with how you treat time-off requests for other religious groups.
Prevalence of Holidays
*July 4th falls on a Saturday in 2015. 60% of employers report that July 3,2015 will be a recognized holiday, while 76% list July 4th as a holiday.
— Source: Society for Human Resource Management 2015 Paid Holiday Survey