Weekly HR News - Avoiding Holiday Liability - Religious Accommodations

Weekly HR - Avoiding Holiday Liability

Part 1 of 4

Religious Accommodations

Keep in mind that while you are enjoying the holiday cheer, you need to take a moment to assess the potential legal liability that the holiday season can bring to your city. Unfortunately, holiday fun can quickly turn into a complex legal issue and, if not handled properly, can result in serious legal penalties.

It is important for cities to consider the multitude of issues that may need to be addressed over the holiday season, such as what sort of seasonal and holiday decorating will be permitted, how to address requests for time off from employees based on religious observance, and what steps must be taken to prevent legal liability at city sponsored holiday parties. Planning on how to deal with these issues now can go a long way toward avoiding legal issues.

Over the next few weeks we will be looking at some of the issues that cities face during the holiday season that can create potential liability as well as employee morale issues.  These include employee bonuses, gift exchanges and holiday parties.  The first such issue addressed below is religious accommodations.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, as well as the Kentucky Civil rights Act, requires an employer to reasonably accommodate an employee’s religious observances, practices and beliefs, as long as it can do so without undue hardship on the city, as the employer.

Remember, that an employee’s religious beliefs do not have to be part of a widely accepted faith in order to qualify for legal protection. Religion includes not only the traditional, structured religions, but also religious philosophies that are new or uncommon. They can be those that are only followed by a small number of people, or that have beliefs that may seem unfounded or unreasonable to others. No matter the situation before you, always err on the side of caution that any given set of beliefs and practices, no matter how unusual, may be considered religious in the eyes of the courts. And as always, if you are unsure whether the religious beliefs are subject to protection, consult your city attorney.

If the city is going to deny a religious accommodation, it must be certain that the accommodation will require more than the usual administrative costs, lessens productivity in other positions, encroaches on co-workers’ job rights or benefits, weakens workplace safety, causes co-workers to do the accommodated employee’s portion of what is considered dangerous or burdensome work, or that the suggested accommodation is in conflict with the law.

For example, a request by a Jewish employee for one day off on Hanukkah since his religious beliefs do not allow him to work on that day, or a request by a Christian employee for the last shift off on Christmas Eve because his religious beliefs require attending a Christmas Eve service can be considered reasonable and the employer should make an effort to allow these requests. Reasonable religious accommodations can include scheduling changes, voluntary substitutes, and shift swaps, as well as adjustments to the dress and grooming policies.

You can find more information on religious accommodations at http://www.eeoc.gov/policy/docs/qanda_religion.html.  If you have additional questions regarding this or any other personnel matter contact Andrea Shindlebower at ashindlebower@klc.org.

Next week: Holiday bonuses – what is and is not legal.