Workers’ Rights to Attend Religious Services 14:21, June 1, 2017

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Workers’ Rights to Attend Religious Services

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US federal and state laws require employers to reasonably accommodate employees’ religious practices. Some employees may request time off to attend religious services. Employers must accommodate these requests unless it would cause them an undue burden to do so.

But participating in religious services is just one of many possible religious accommodations under most jurisdictions. Other accommodations include allowing workers to wear religious articles of clothing or ornaments at work; time off to attend religious holidays; prayer breaks during the workday; or food that’s acceptable based on an employee’s religion at company-sponsored events. It’s not common for the law to provide heightened status to requests for religious accommodations primarily or solely to attend religious services.

Right to Attend Religious Services

Littler Mendelson PC reported that Puerto Rico now requires employers to reasonably accommodate employee requests to participate in religious services, or else face fines of up to $5,000. This new requirement, which could create more burdens on business, is part of an otherwise pro-employer employment and labor law overhaul in Puerto Rico. The island’s “Labor Transformation and Flexibility Act” (LTFA) “aims to stimulate Puerto Rico’s struggling economy through employer-friendly revisions to attract new businesses and facilitate operations for existing enterprises,” according to Morgan Lewis & Bockius LLP. Among provisions employers may like: the law reportedly guts the Closing Act, which restricted retail operations on Sundays and required premium pay for employees who worked on Sundays. It is not clear whether the legislature intended the new right to participate in religious services as a salve to employees affected by the weakening of the Closing Act, but it’s not far-fetched to see a connection.

The law firm of Pietrantoni, Mendez & Alvarez LLC summarizes the “Participation in Religious Services” provision of the LTFA as follows:

Employers will be required to make reasonable accommodations in the work schedule of an employee in order to participate in a religious activity. If it is a recurrent activity, a single request will suffice. The method to accommodate preferred by the employee must be granted unless the employer demonstrates it will result in undue hardship. Failure to make the accommodation, or taking reprisals for the request, will result in an administrative fee not lower than $1,000 nor higher than $5,000.

According to Littler, regulations to implement the LTFA’s new religious accommodation protections took effect on May 25, 2017. The regulations reportedly require employers to respond in writing to requests for religious accommodations (usually within seven days); if the employer does not timely respond in writing or does not give a legal reason to deny the request, the employee generally gets the requested accommodation.

Undue Burden or Religious Diversity

Although few jurisdictions focus primarily on the rights of employees to attend religious services, employers are generally required to reasonably accommodate workers’ requests to do so. It’s a balancing act. For example, employers may be required to permit time off for employees’ religious activities, but must not make participation in religious activities a job requirement. This includes on- or off-duty religious practices.

Employers don’t have to give employees who request a religious accommodations exactly what they want, especially if a requested accommodation would compromise health and safety or otherwise cause an undue burden to the employer. Although the new Puerto Rico law, like most other jurisdictions, allows employers to deny accommodations that would unduly burden them, LTFA seems to go further by automatically granting requests to participate in religious services when the employer does not dot their i’s and cross their t’s. Savvy employers gear their policies and protocols to smoothly facilitate the strictest jurisdictions so that employers don’t have to overhaul their policies everywhere they go. At the very least, employers should not grasp at the “undue burden” exemption as an easy excuse to deny an accommodation (again, unless it’s necessary for health, safety, or similar reasons).

Leaders who seek workplace diversity should look beyond considering employee religious practices as potential burdens. Every request for a religious accommodation can be considered an opportunity to foster diversity and inclusiveness. Workers who ask for religious accommodations implicitly reveal important aspects of their identities. This can take courage, and probably indicates that the worker cares enough about the job to find a way to integrate this part of their identity with the workplace.

On the other hand, workers who hide important aspects of their identities — especially those aspects related to religion, race, gender, age, or other protected characteristics — are less likely to feel welcomed in the workplace. That sense of being welcomed, inclusivity, helps drive employee engagement. While diversity can be measured by headcount, inclusivity reflects the employee’s story about who they are and whether they feel they fit in at the workplace. Workers who hide their religion or other parts of their identities to conform to workplace norms are more likely to become flight risks.  When talent drops away through lack of inclusiveness, diversity efforts can turn into an uphill climb pushing a boulder against stubborn gravity. Talk about an “undue burden.”

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Steve Treagus
Stephen Treagus, JD's, previous practice as an attorney specializing in employment litigation exposed him to the rough-and-tumble world of employment relationships gone awry. Today, this experience informs his articles and courses, helping employers avoid costly litigation and get employment law right. Stephen earned his JD from John F. Kennedy University School of Law and his BA from Sonoma State University.

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