Many employers are surprised to learn that they are generally not legally required to let employees take holidays off. However, an employee may be entitled to take a holiday off for religious reasons, as long as the employee’s absence would not create an undue hardship.
General Rules for Holidays
Most employers in this country give employees at least a handful of holidays off each year, including Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day. According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, employers in private industry provide an average of eight paid holidays per year.
This common practice is not legally required, however. As recent trends in holiday shopping demonstrate, an employer can require employees to work through Thanksgiving dinner or clock in on Christmas morning. These employers undoubtedly pay a price in employee morale—and, in the case of large retailers, customer protest. But they haven’t broken the law.
In fact, employees aren’t even entitled to extra pay for holiday work, unless those hours require them to put in overtime (in most states, more than 40 hours in a week).
Time Off for Religious Observance
The rules are different when an employee requests time off to observe a religious holiday, however. In this situation, an employer might be required to grant the request unless it creates an undue hardship.
Title VII, which applies to employers with 15 or more employees, is the primary federal law prohibiting workplace discrimination. Title VII makes it illegal for employers to make job decisions based on an employee’s religious beliefs or practices. For example, an employer may not refuse to hire Muslim applicants or refuse to promote employees who don’t share the owner’s Christian faith. (For more on this topic, see Religious Discrimination in Employment.)
Title VII also requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for their employees’ religious beliefs, unless the accommodation would create undue hardship for the company. An accommodation is a change to the usual rules, requirements, schedule, or job duties that will allow an employee to practice his or her religion. Examples include relaxing a dress code to allow an employee to wear religious garb or jewelry, or providing a private space and breaks during the workday for prayer.
Shift and scheduling changes are among the most frequent religious accommodation requests. If an employee requests time off to observe a religious holiday, you must provide it absent undue hardship. You don’t need to pay the employee for this time off, however, unless the employee is using paid leave (like vacation or paid time off).
A reasonable accommodation for an employee’s religious practices creates an undue hardship if it imposes anything more than a minimal burden. When an employee requests a religious holiday off, for example, you might have to pay some additional administrative costs (for example, those associated with inputting a schedule change) or pay some overtime. These expenses don’t add up to an undue hardship. However, more significant costs—such as having to hire another employee or pay overtime on a regular basis—could create undue hardship.
The undue hardship test also considers nonmonetary factors, such as whether the accommodation infringes on the rights of other employees. If, for example, another employee is willing to swap shifts with someone who needs time off for a religious holiday, that wouldn’t be an undue hardship. However, Title VII does not require you to force a shift swap on an unwilling employee or to disrupt your usual seniority system. For example, if a new employee requests Sundays off to observe her Sabbath, but no other employees want to work on Sunday, and you allow more senior employees to take the most desirable work schedules, you might not have to accommodate the new employee’s request.