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No need to ‘Totally’ accommodate religious practices

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When it comes to providing employees with the time they need to practice their religion, the key word is “reasonable,” not “total.” An employer doesn’t have to bend over backward to provide all the time off an employee’s religion may demand if doing so creates morale problems among co-workers who have to pick up the slack.

The fact is, some religions have so many requirements that it’s almost impossible to accommodate the practitioners.

One innovative approach is to designate a certain number of days as floating holidays that employees can use as they choose. Or perhaps you can offer a set number of unpaid leave hours per year that employees can use for any reason. Employees then must use those days or hours to practice their religion. If they run over, they risk termination if they don’t show up for work.

Recent case: David Wise worked for Firestone for about six years with no problems. In 2001, he joined the Living Church of God. His new religion required him to refrain from working from sundown on Friday to Saturday at sundown. His religion also required him to take seven sets of holidays that do not mesh with the Firestone plant’s holidays schedule. All told, he needed 20 days off per year, plus every Friday evening through Saturday evening.

At first, this was not a problem since he worked the desirable 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. shift, Monday through Friday. But following a layoff, reworked schedules meant Wise had to work a later shift, as well as some weekends. He asked for a religious accommodation.

Firestone told him he could use vacation and the company’s unpaid-leave program to take time off. He did but still ran out of time. Then he simply didn’t show up for some shifts. Firestone fired him, and he sued, claiming the company was required to fully accommodate his religious needs.

The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals tossed out his case. It ruled that the law didn’t require a total accommodation, just a reasonable one. And Firestone’s vacation and unpaid-leave plan was reasonable. (EEOC v. Firestone, No. 06-2203, 4th Cir., 2008)

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