‘Tis the Season for Employment Law Compliance

What business owners need to know as the holiday season approaches.

With all of the upcoming holidays, employers may be wondering if they are legally obligated to offer employees paid time off for any of them. Workplace diversity is a hot topic. Is there an employment law compliance or any obligations regarding cultural holidays and religious beliefs?

Here’s what business owners need to know:

Contrary to popular belief, there are no federal or state laws requiring employers to give paid time off for holidays. However, according to a 2016 study by the WorldatWork Association, most companies offer nine paid holidays as part of the employee benefits package.

Employers do, however, have several obligations worth mentioning under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. For example, you must consider reasonable accommodations for employees’ religious observances and beliefs. You are obligated to negate religious discrimination in the workplace.

How does the law define religious observances or beliefs?

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission defines religious beliefs as theistic beliefs and non-theistic “moral or ethical beliefs as to what is right and wrong which are sincerely held with the strength of traditional religious views.” Often, these beliefs extend beyond requested time off for religious holidays. You may see them in areas like work schedules or the dress code policy. For example, a Muslim woman wearing a khimar (headscarf) for religious reasons may ask for an accommodation to a “no hat” clause in your dress code policy. Alternatively, a Jewish employee may request an accommodation to the work schedule during winter months when the sun sets early on the Sabbath. Typically observed beginning Friday at sundown. By law, a business needs to make an accommodation unless doing so would cause an “undue hardship.”

What constitutes an “undue hardship?”

An organization can prove “undue hardship” if the accommodation would prove costly, comprise workplace safety, decrease workplace efficiency, infringe on the rights of other employees or require other employees to do more than their share of potentially hazardous or burdensome work. In the previous example, if the Muslim woman works in a manufacturing plant where the khimar would pose a safety threat with the machinery she operates, you can deny her accommodation request. It would be a different story if the woman worked in an office setting where hats are not allowed due to the impression they make on customers. Law does not consider anyone’s feelings or impressions as an “undue hardship, ” so her employer should consider an accommodation.

Does this law apply to every business?

Title VII covers all private employers and government and educational institutions with 15 or more employees. However, some states may have anti-discrimination laws that include even smaller companies. Religious organizations can be exempt from Title VII’s religion provisions if their “purpose and character are primarily religious.” For example, it is legal for a Catholic school to require that its teachers be Catholic.

Following are a few employment best practices to ensure you remain compliant with Title VII laws:

  • Avoid interview questions that allude to or directly ask about religious beliefs. In fact, establish a list you ask every candidate. Write out your criteria for choosing a candidate, and apply it consistently to avoid discriminatory decisions.
  • Create and communicate an anti-harassment policy for your employees. While this may include all harassment, make sure the policy includes religious harassment. It should explain what to do if it should occur. Employees will feel less threatened when reporting harassment if you explain retaliation against a complaint is illegal.
  • Train supervisors to identify and manage religious accommodation requests and instances of discrimination. The supervisor should respond promptly and apply the proper corrective action.
  • Do not associate corporate social events and activities with specific holidays. If your company chooses to treat employees to lunch in December, give the occasion a generic name like “holiday lunch.”
  • Consider adding 1-2 “floating holidays” to your paid time off policy and allowing flexible work schedules when possible. These opportunities enable employees to schedule work around personal or religious matters, reducing the number of requested accommodations.

Tandem HR

If you are feeling overwhelmed by the details of this employment law compliance, don’t worry!

At Tandem HR, we know employment law compliance is challenging and always changing, and that non-compliance can be costly. We aim to keep businesses compliant in addition to the other services we provide in the areas of payroll, benefits, employee relations and risk management. Tandem HR is a Chicago Professional Employer Organization (PEO), and IRS certified PEO assisting hundreds of small and mid-sized businesses in these areas every day. For a free consultation, contact us at 630.928.0510 or email simplify@tandemhr.com.