The Chicago Employment Law Blog

Time Off for Religious Holidays: Learn From UPS' Alleged Mistake

Much like beauty, the legal standard of "reasonableness" is in the eye of the beholder. What one person finds reasonable, an employer might think untenable. When it comes to time off for religious holidays, employees with unfamiliar religious practices can become a quandary for an employer. While they want to respect their employee's religious practices, they also need to have their staff available during working hours, without unpredictable days off.

The name of the game is reasonable compromise. United Parcel Services will learn this the expensive way, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The federal watchdog agency is suing UPS on behalf of a former employee who was denied time off to attend the Memorial of Christ's Death, which is an annual religious service for Jehovah's Witnesses.

What was the proposed and denied reasonable accommodation? The employee asked to either work a different day, start his shift at a different hour, or be given an hour's leave to attend the ceremony during working hours. To this blogger, that certainly sounds like a reasonable request. Considering many lunch breaks are about an hour long, allowing an employee to take an hour-long religious break, or to work a different shift, certainly doesn't sound unreasonable.

The requested accommodation was denied. UPS reportedly told him to report to work "or else." Of course, the employee chose God over Big Brown and lost his job. When he tried to apply for a different position at UPS' Staten Island facility, he learned that he was on a "do not hire" list.

With the holiday season approaching, it is important for employers to understand the state of the law in order to properly address employees' requests. Certain holidays, like Christmas, are federal holidays. Outside of the few federal days, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act applies. It requires employers to make that hard to define reasonable accommodation.

Which brings us back to the eternal question: what is reasonable? If an employee wanted to take all eight days and eight nights of Chanukah off, that might be a bit unreasonable, especially if that very valuable employee's absence would prove to be a significant burden on the employer. On the other hand, a request to take an hour off for an annual observance certainly seems like the opposite end of the spectrum and nearly all employers should grant such a request.

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