The holidays bring a certain set of challenges to HR departments, and this may be especially true in 2019.
Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and Christmas Day all occur during the week of Sunday, Dec. 22, overlapping and potentially creating issues for employers who don't have policies and procedures in place, attorneys told HR Dive. Employers will need to note religious accommodation duties as well as scheduling and leave administration issues.
#1: Anticipate scheduling headaches
With the holiday season comes a mix of travel, family engagements and other obligations that can mean employees need to miss work.
In many companies, this isn't a huge problem, Kathy Dudley Helms, shareholder at Ogletree Deakins, told HR Dive in an interview. Many shut down entirely for the season, have policies in place to allow workers time off or have staff who are willing to fill in for co-workers. But that's not always a given.
"Most everything's closed on Christmas, or impacted by Hanukkah, but there are businesses that just do not shut down," Helms said. "One of the things that always comes up is scheduling." Take retailers, for example: A department store may need all hands on deck to survive the holiday rush, and workers there are unlikely to receive time off, Helms said.
Things can get challenging when employees need to take time off to accommodate religious practices. Employers generally have the ability to refuse to grant time off if a request would pose an undue hardship for the business — i.e. causing a lack of necessary staffing, to use an example from the U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission.
But that's easier said than done. To be sure, it's a lower bar for employers compared to other accommodation laws, according to Helms. "It's a lower standard than [the Americans with Disabilities Act], but employers really need to look at whether they can give that time off." In short, employers must consider the particular facts of a given request, case-by-case, Helms said. "Most of the time, they say if you can find someone to switch shifts, that's what they do."
An employer may decide to take disciplinary actions if employees are unable to fill their shifts, but it needs to make sure that the decision isn't being made on the basis of an employee's religious belief, Helms said.
Employers can also help make the process run smoothly by keeping a record of scheduling changes, Natalie N. Turner, also a shareholder at Ogletree Deakins, told HR Dive in an interview. "If someone got off for Christmas this year, then you should keep a record of that so that someone can switch time off with that person next year."
#2: When it comes to time-off requests, don't assume
Many employers are more likely to encounter absenteeism and Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) leave issues during the holidays than anything related to religious accommodation, Turner said. It's a sensitive time for management not just because of the staffing issues an uptick in time off requests can create, but also because employers may be tempted to investigate those requests. Employers need to be careful if they hear talk about FMLA or PTO misuse, per Turner.
"If the request is a legitimate request that follows the law, be careful of substituting your judgment," Turner said. "That can get you into a lot of trouble." She advised employers not to be "jaded" about employees' use of leave if the employee has completed the appropriate paperwork and associated processes.
Employers also need to be careful when it comes to seniority-based PTO systems, Turner said. Some workplaces may end up in situations where, due to the structuring of their policies, an employee who has been with the company for 10 years or more has never been able to take PTO during the holidays because a more senior co-worker does so every year.
"There's no law that says you can't reward PTO around the holidays based on seniority," Turner said, "but it easily creates HR issues." She said she advises clients to consider making changes to their leave allocation process in time for the following year to make things more equitable. "Once you've had people there for five years, you want to make sure that they can take off every other year."
#3: Know responsibilities around religious accommodation
It can be challenging enough to accommodate employees' religious practices during the holidays, but misunderstandings and ignorance about common religious traditions can make things even more difficult. Some workforces are sensitive to those with different traditions, but not all are, Turner said. She noted it may be beneficial for an employer to have discussions about how and why it offers such accommodations.
"If this is an issue … have a meeting where you talk about how different people observe different [holidays] … and that we allow people to observe those,” Turner said
It's also important to note that an employee's belief does not have to fall under the umbrella of a traditional, organized religion to be protected by federal law, according to EEOC. As long as that belief is sincerely held by the employee, it meets the standard created by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Turner noted.