In the classic “A Christmas Carol,” Charles Dickens writes a scene where Bob Cratchit is negotiating for Christmas Day off from his boss, Ebenezer Scrooge. Scrooge relents to Cratchit’s requests, although bitterly. It’s a scene many US workers never connect with because for most Americans, Christmas is a standard holiday. However, more and more retailers in the US are opening their doors on Christmas. It seems that every year more and more people are being asked to work on Christmas and I’m left wondering how many are aware of where they stand in terms of employment law and religious holidays.
Christmas as a Religious Holiday Has Special Standing
Generally, your company sets the hours that you are supposed to work whether it’s in the morning, late at night or during a national holiday. Last Thanksgiving, retailers looking to open early for holiday shopping were met with opposition and criticism from workers and consumers. Complaints that were aired focused on how longer store hours were cutting into family time during one of America’s biggest holidays. However, Christmas is a unique situation in that it is a national holiday and a religious holiday.
The Constitution affords every American with the freedom of religion and with it, the freedom to practice that religion. While there is little stopping your boss from opening their doors on President’s Day, Christmas has many serious implications in the eyes of employment law.
The Rule of Thumb
Ultimately, there is nothing in the law that says you cannot open your doors on religious holidays. However, companies do need to follow a few guidelines for employees who celebrate Christmas for religious reasons.
The general rule is that employers must make “reasonable efforts to accommodate” for religious reasons. However, employers cannot be compelled in situations where this accommodation “creates undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.”
What is Reasonable?
Religions have numerous requirements that can conflict with work. Meeting work obligations can sometimes put employees in conflict with their religious beliefs. According to the Anti-Defamation League, “reasonable” means that if the employer has an option to relieve that conflict without unduly harming their business, they must provide that option to the employee.
For example, an employee of Jewish faith that cannot work on the Sabbath could work longer shifts so that they have the Sabbath off. Thus, the employer is not unduly harmed and the conflict the employee has with his religious belief is resolved.
It is important to note that how the employer chooses to reasonably resolve that conflict is up to the employer.
The Loophole is “Undue Hardship”
Before you plan on taking Christmas off as a religious holiday, you should know that the employer has broad standing to claim undue hardship where it relates to accommodating religious beliefs. Essentially, undue hardship is anything more than minimal costs to meet employee religious beliefs. Those minimal costs could be unfairness to other employees, lowering work efficiency or higher than ordinary operational costs.
In other words, it’s very wide door. Especially since national holidays cost billions to employers to observe.
Small Employers are Exempt
While employment law pertaining to religious practices extends to most employers, there is a notable portion of companies that are exempt. Companies with 15 or fewer employees are exempt from Federal laws pertaining to religious discrimination. However, many states have additional laws to protect employees of these smaller companies.
Can your boss make you work on Christmas? Yes, they probably can, but that doesn’t mean that they won’t make accommodations for your religious beliefs. Knowing the employment law when it comes to religious observance of Christmas will help you and your employer resolve conflicts in a constructive way.