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Can My Employer Force Me to Work on a Religious Holiday?

December 28th, 2021
religious holiday

Some religious holidays are celebrated as national holidays in the United States and the state of New Jersey. Other religious holidays are celebrated within the specific religious organizations and among their practitioners. Some religious holidays are celebrated for a day, whereas others could be celebrated over several days. 

The widely varying differences in religions and how they celebrate their respective holidays could have a significant impact on the ability to get time off to observe them. Some religions celebrate their holidays from an hour after sundown the day prior to an hour after sundown on the day the religious holiday ends. Others could depend on the moon phase or other factors that determine the days and hours of religious observance.

Some religious holidays require fasting, which could have a significant impact on a worker’s ability to do the job because of a lack of food. Other religious holidays might temporarily restrict the type of work that observers could do. But the question that most often weighs on workers’ minds regards whether their employers can force them to work on religious holidays.

Reasonable Accommodation Required for Time Off

Your employer is not obligated to give you time off work to observe a religious holiday. However, your employer does have to do its best to accommodate work requests. A variety of reasons could make it impossible for your employer to give you time off work for the observance of a religious holiday. 

If you ask for a day off without pay and your employer has the available staff to cover for your brief time away, you stand a much better chance of getting the day off from work. Many employers provide personal time that workers can use to request time off with pay to observe religious holidays and for other personal reasons. 

However, that does not mean you automatically get approval for time off even if you have personal leave time available. Business conditions always determine whether someone can get time off for non-emergencies. 

If the religious holiday just happens to coincide with the busiest day of the year, an employer could deny a request for time off. But an employer does need to make reasonable accommodations whenever possible. If a reasonable solution exists, it should be used. If it is ignored, you might have a legitimate complaint for religious discrimination

Federal and State Protections against Religious Discrimination

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) outlaw religious-based discrimination. If you request time off and your employer has legitimate reasons to deny it, that does not qualify as discrimination. 

However, if your employer intentionally forces you to work when it is unnecessary because of religious bias, that would be an example of religious discrimination. So would forcing you to do work that goes against your religious beliefs strictly out of spite for your religion and its religious observances. 

Your employer must make reasonable accommodations whenever possible to help you observe your religious holiday. A slight change in the hours that still requires you to work on the holiday would be a reasonable accommodation. It enables you to participate in important religious observances but still satisfies your work obligations. 

Suppose your employer offers a reasonable accommodation and you refuse to accept it and take the time off anyway. That might be reason for lawful dismissal from your job. But a tactful approach and advanced planning could help you to get the time off and not risk your employment.

Examples of Circumstances that Allow Employers to Deny Time Off

When it comes to asking for unscheduled time off from work, the concept of undue hardship is what gives the employer the legal power to deny it. If the employer can show that the request would wind up costing the employer a lot of money or it would reduce efficiency in the workplace, that would be an undue hardship. 

If the request would cause a potential threat to workplace safety or its security, the request for time off could be denied. Seniority also could come into play if your request for time off would violate the seniority rights of another worker. 

Sometimes, work conditions require all employees to work their normal schedules. If the request causes undue hardship for other workers who cannot get time off because of increased workloads or business demands, the employer would have the right to deny your request. 

Ways to Arrange Reasonable Accommodations

If you are good at your job and are a valued employee, your employer most likely wants to keep you. That is especially true if your occupation requires a high level of skill and training to do well. If you work with your employer, your boss likely will work with you when you want time off to observe religious holidays. 

It starts by choosing a job and career that does not interfere with your religious practices. If your religion bans contact with alcohol, a job in a liquor store would be a bad idea. Also, if you ask to not handle liquor because your religion is against it, your employer would have every right to either let you go or not hire you. 

Odds are you know the dates and times of your important religious holidays. That means you can make a request for time off or other accommodation that enables you to observe the holiday well in advance. Some workplaces do not allow requests for time off made more than a month in advance. Putting in a request as soon as they can be accepted is a good way to get time off. 

You also might ask for a work schedule or a temporary assignment that gives you a more flexible schedule. Your boss also might let you work longer hours on other days so that you can take a day off for religious observance. Also, you could ask if a co-worker will change shifts with you so that you could get time off. 

Potential Legal Remedies for Denial or Retaliation

If you were denied what you believe to be a reasonable accommodation for time off work to observe a religious holiday, you still might be able to get that time off. The next best step would be to go higher up the supervisory chain with your concern. 

You should clearly explain why you are making a request for a reasonable accommodation because of your religion and a major religious holiday. If you can demonstrate the request is reasonable and does not cause an undue hardship, you stand a better chance of getting time off. 

If that fails and you want to pursue the matter further, you could file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The EEOC can investigate and possibly render a decision that says discrimination occurred. It also could conclude your employer was right to deny the request as an undue hardship. 

If the EEOC rules in your favor, you might have federal and state claims against your employer. However, you need to file an EEOC complaint first for a federal lawsuit to be filed. You could proceed with a state-level lawsuit accusing your employer of violating the NJLAD. 

Cherry Hill Employment Lawyers at The Gold Law Firm P.C., Protect the Rights of Workers

If a reasonable request for time off work caused you to lose your job or suffer other consequences, reach out to the experienced Cherry Hill employment lawyers at The Gold Law Firm P.C. We will thoroughly investigate the details of your case, ensure that your legal rights are protected, and assist you with the claims process. Call us today at 215-569-1999 or contact us online for a free consultation. Located in Pennsauken, New Jersey, and Philadelphia, we serve clients in Cherry Hill, Haddonfield, Marlton, Moorestown, Mount Laurel, New Jersey, and South Jersey.

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