Despite a trend toward employers embracing flexibility in the workplace as a way to improve work-life balance, most employers have expectations related to their employees’ schedules. In some workplaces, rigid schedules aren’t necessary as long as the work gets done. In others, shifts are firm and when someone needs time off, a request is made through channels, it’s granted or denied, and the answer is final.
But what if a time-off request intersects with religion? Is an employer obligated to stray from normal policy in an effort to grant a request? With Good Friday, Easter, and Passover occurring this week, employers may be facing those questions.
An employer needs to keep the workplace staffed even when employees want time off to observe religious holidays. But before saying yes to some and no to others — or just turning everybody down — an employer needs to consider what the law requires.
Accommodating religious beliefs
Among other things, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination in the workplace based on one’s religion. Therefore employers are obligated to make reasonable accommodations for employees needing them because of their religious beliefs.
Keith Moorman, a member with Frost Brown Todd LLC in Lexington, Kentucky, wrote on religion in the workplace in the April edition of Kentucky Employment Law Letter. He points out that employers may require evidence of an employee’s beliefs, and the employer doesn’t have to accommodate if doing so constitutes an undue hardship.
“In the context of religion, accommodation creates an ‘undue’ hardship if it will cause more than a de minimus (minimal) cost or burden to the employer, which is a far lower standard than required for reasonable accommodation in other situations,” Moorman writes.
Reasonable accommodation depends on factors such as an employee’s work location and duties, the number of employees affected by the accommodation, and the cost the employer would incur if the accommodation is granted. “Generally, however, an accommodation is unreasonable if it creates a safety or security risk or infringes on the rights of other employees,” Moorman says.
HR Guide to Employment Law, including discrimination
What’s included in “religion”?
Title VII doesn’t require someone to be part of an organized religious group to qualify for protection from discrimination, but “a ‘religion’ must involve a belief system that seeks to answer such questions as the meaning of life, the nature of death, and a person’s place in the universe,” Moorman writes.
“Political, social, and philosophical beliefs, even if they’re very strongly held, do not constitute a ‘religion.’ And a personal preference such as the desire to attend worship services at a particular time isn’t a religious belief even if it’s connected to religious beliefs,” Moorman says.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has a list of employer best practices related to employees’ religious beliefs. Best practices relating to accommodations include:
- Employers should train managers and supervisors on how to recognize religious accommodation requests from employees.
- Employers and employees should confer fully and promptly to the extent needed to share any necessary information about the employee’s religious needs and the available accommodation options.
- An employer isn’t required to provide an employee’s preferred accommodation if there is more than one effective alternative to choose from.
The EEOC’s list of best practices relating to what constitutes undue hardship for an employer includes:
- An employer shouldn’t assume that an accommodation will conflict with the terms of a seniority system or collective bargaining agreement (CBA) without first checking if there are any exceptions for religious accommodation or other avenues to allow accommodation consistent with the seniority system or CBA.
- Employers should ensure that managers are aware that reasonable accommodation may require making exceptions to policies or procedures that aren’t part of a CBA or seniority system, when it wouldn’t infringe on other employees’ legitimate expectations.
One accommodation endorsed in the EEOC’s best practices list is voluntary substitutes and shift swaps among employees. If one employee needs time off to attend a religious service, for example, employers are encouraged to allow that employee to swap days with another employee.
“An employer should facilitate and encourage voluntary substitutions and swaps with employees of substantially similar qualifications by publicizing its policy permitting such arrangements, promoting an atmosphere in which substitutes are favorably regarded, and providing a central file, bulletin board, group email, or other means to help an employee with a religious conflict find a volunteer to substitute or swap,” the EEOC best practices list says.
Tammy Binford writes and edits news alerts and newsletter articles on labor and employment law topics for BLR Web and print publications. In addition, she writes for HR Hero Line and Diversity Insight, two of the ezines and blogs found on HRHero.com.