As previously discussed on this blog, employers are not required by law to provide employees with time off on nationally recognized holidays. However, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does require employers to reasonably accommodate an employee’s sincerely held religious beliefs and practices. Such reasonable accommodations can include allowing time off for religious observances on holidays, or allowing an employee to express religious beliefs through holiday decorations at their desk or office. For employers with workers of many different religions, the winter holiday season may provide certain challenges or raise questions regarding compliance with Title VII accommodation requirements.
Time Off for Holiday Observances
Because different employees may wish to celebrate different winter holidays, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission offers the following suggestions for accommodating time off for religious accommodations:
· Floating holidays or optional holidays
· Voluntary shift swaps or substitutions
· Flexible arrival and departure times
· Flexible break times
· Staggered shifts
· Allowing employees to make up time off for religious holidays on off-hours
· Foregoing lunch or breaks to leave earlier
Regardless of how a company chooses to accommodate holiday time off, employers must always make sure they do not treat employees celebrating one holiday more favorably than employees celebrating another type of holiday.
Decorations in the Workplace
Though many employment experts encourage employers to have religion-neutral seasonal decorations to promote an inclusive work environment, the laws do not prohibit private employers from specifically decorating for or referencing a certain holiday. Furthermore, even if the company has Christmas decorations up, employees of a different religion should be allowed to display religious holiday items in their personal workspace as long as the items do not cause disruption in the office.
What about Non-religious Winter Holidays?
When people think about winter holidays, Hanukkah and Christmas tend to primarily come to mind. However, there are some other winter holidays that, at first glance, do not seem religious but may still have some protections under Title VII. For example, Kwanzaa, which runs from December 26th to January 1st this year, is not technically affiliated with a particular religion. However, Kwanzaa is rooted in the seven principles of a cultural philosophy called Kawaida, of which one principle is faith. Furthermore, if an employee states they have sincerely held beliefs in these cultural principles, they could qualify for protections under Title VII. Additionally, the holiday Festivus, which takes place on December 23rd, is a secular parody holiday made famous by the television show, Seinfeld. However, atheists have widely begun celebrating Festivus as an alternative to religious winter holidays. Therefore, if an employee states that celebrating Festivus is in line with their sincerely held atheistic beliefs, employers may violate the law if they deny any Festivus-related requests.
If you are an employer and have any concerns regarding religious accommodations during the holiday season or any other time, contact HKM Employment Attorneys for help as soon as possible.