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Are companies required to give time off for Religious Observances?

It’s important to know what accommodations you’re legally required to make when employees request time off work for religious purposes/observations.  This is a very sensitive issue which can bring much controversy.  Yet if you are prepared and know your company’s policies/procedures you will be much less likely to put your organization at risk.  

One of the biggest conflicts occurs when an employee wants to take time off and potential productivity and profitability is compromised.  Title VII states that an employer must provide “reasonable accommodation” of an employee’s religious beliefs and practices.  Under Title VII, an employer can’t refuse to reasonably accommodate an employee’s religious observances, unless accommodation would constitute an “undue hardship” for the company.  According to trial attorney Jeffrey Steinberger (senior partner of The Law Offices of Jeffrey W. Steinberger), when making a decision regarding “reasonably accommodations,” note the following:

  1. An employee must first notify the employer of the conflict between his or her religious belief and an employment requirement.  Without proper notification, an employer can legally discharge an employee for excessive absences, even if it’s later determined that the absences were for religious purposes.
  2. Recent court cases have ruled in favor of employers when employees requested preferential treatment in regards to taking time off to observe the Sabbath.  The courts have found undue hardship to the employer because of morale problems with the employees that had to work on Saturdays, as well as employers having to pay higher wages to fill the employee’s vacancy.
  3. Employees have had more success in cases involving special leave to observe holy days or attend religious activities that weren’t regular and frequent., However, even a single absence can cause an employer undue hardship.  For example, if the employee is the only one who can perform an essential job to continue business operations, an argument of “undue hardship” could be made.
  4. In ruling on Title VII religion cases, the courts have held that employers aren’t required to accommodate employees’ religious activities when it involves increased financial costs, transferring supervisory personnel or employees from other departments resulting in inefficiency, or discriminating against other employees or violating seniority systems.
  5. Examples of accommodations that don’t constitute undue hardship:  flexible work schedules, voluntary substitutions, floating or optional holidays, staggered work hours, and allowing employees to make up lost time.
  6. While technically not required, companies should always offer accommodation suggestions before claiming undue hardship.  If no suggestions are made, the employer must be able to prove there was no possible accommodation.
  7. Consult expert legal counsel to achieve a successful resolution when the employer and employee can’t agree.

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