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Employer's Duty to Give Time Off on Religious Holidays

Does an employer have a duty to give time off to its employees on religious holidays? It's a timely question since Good Friday and Easter are upon us. Unless we are talking about the few federal holidays established by law, like Christmas, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act applies. It says that an employer must make a reasonable accommodation for an employee's religious beliefs.

UPS is being sued now by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for UPS's treatment of a former employee who asked for time off to attend the Memorial of Christ's Death. That is a yearly religious service for Jehovah's Witnesses. When the employee asked to work a different day, be given an hour off to attend the service, or start his shift at a different time, UPS said no to all options. The employee went to the service anyway, was fired from his job, and was put on a UPS do not hire list. He complained to EEOC, which sued UPS for its failure to provide a reasonable accommodation.

What is a reasonable accommodation? The word "reasonable" is always problematic, because what is reasonable is somewhat subjective. But there are extremes in conduct which are clearly not reasonable. The law requires an employer and its employee to balance competing interests. A natural tension exists between the employer, who wants to have enough workers to get its business done, and the employee, who under the law deserves to have time for religious observance.

In the UPS situation, it would have been reasonable for UPS to agree to one of the options presented by the employee. For instance, the hour off to go to the religious service would have been comparable to an hour off for lunch, so it will be hard for UPS to defend itself by saying that its business would have been significantly affected by the short absence. On the other hand, a Jewish employee asking for eight days off to observe Hannukah, or a Muslim employee asking for a month off for Ramadan, would likely be considered unreasonable under Title VII. Reasonable compromise by both sides in light of the circumstances is all that the law requires.

Happy Holy Days, including Easter!


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