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Ramadan is an important religious holiday about which there may be more than the usual number of misconceptions. Nonetheless, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects the rights of employees to reasonable accommodation of religious practice in the workplace. Employers can do a lot to support an inclusive and tolerant corporate culture, but employees may need to be vigilant about protecting their rights.

Ramadan 101

Readers who live and work in culturally and religiously diverse areas of the country are welcome to skip this section, but if you are an employer and you feel confused about Ramadan, soldier on.

Ramadan is a very important month-long period of observance for Muslims. Like many religious holidays, it is set according to the lunar calendar so, like Easter and Yom Kippur, it floats.  In general, though, look for Ramadan in the late summer. In 2014, it began on June 28 and will end on July 27.

Observing Ramadan involves prayer, spiritual renewal, charity and fasting between sunrise and sunset. In this case, fasting means nothing, really nothing, including water, between the lips. The fasting requirement can be much tougher on workers who do hard physical work than on office employees. Imagine what it is like for World Cup players.

What the Law Requires

Title VII requires employers to offer reasonable accommodations for employees’ religious practices if those accommodations can be implemented without undue hardship to the employer. The goal is to strike a balance.  As you might guess, the questions of what is reasonable and what is undue hardship can become complicated. With respect to Ramadan, the two big sticking points seem to be time for prayer and the opportunity to break the fast as soon after sundown as possible.

Recent EEOC Action

In a pair of lawsuits, EEOC v. JBS USA, LLC d/b/a JBS Swift & Company, 10-CV-02103 PAB-KUM (D. Colo.), and EEOC v. JBS USA, LLC d/b/a JBS Swift & Company, 8:10-cv-00318-TDT (D. Neb.), the Equal Opportunity Commission joined with individual Muslim plaintiffs to sue the meatpacking giant, Swift. The complaints centered on religious and national origin discrimination and the creation of hostile work environment. The workers allege that Swift failed to accommodate religious beliefs by refusing to allow them to pray and retaliated by terminating their employment when they requested that the evening break be moved so that they could break their fast and pray at sundown during Ramadan.

Supervisors reportedly threw blood, meat and bones at Muslim employees, denied them access to drinking water or water for washing, called them offensive names, permitted obscene and racially charged graffiti in the restrooms, and subjected them to offensive comments, like “go back to your country.” This isn’t a matter of cross-cultural misunderstanding. This is hate.

At the other end of the spectrum,  Electrolux agreed to settle a religious discrimination suit by modifying the break schedule to allow Muslim employees to pray and break their Ramadan fasts shortly after sunset in a safe environment, away from the production area. Electrolux also agreed to train employees on the legal requirements related to religious accommodation.

What Employers Should Do

Good business practices can do a lot to keep an employer out of court.  A workplace where workers throw blood and bones at each other is probably not all that productive, either.  Non-Muslim employers should certainly start by making a point of knowing when Ramadan is.  Second, although employers should not ask about religion, they can be clear that employees may request accommodation. During Ramadan, the following tips may also be helpful:

  • Look at special requests for annual or unpaid leave. Especially for workers who do heavy physical labor, this may be part of the way to deal with the fast. Ramadan ends with the important religious holiday Eid-al-Fitr, and Muslims may want the day off.
  • Consider flexible working or changing shift rotations to accommodate breaking the fast.
  • Consider allowing extra time off to pray, especially at sunset.
  • Be aware that fasting workers may simply need an occasional break to cope with lower energy levels.
  • Encourage gestures such as sending Eid cards, in a similar way to Christmas cards.
  • Avoid organizing social events or mandatory meetings that involve food during Ramadan.
  • Consider allowing meal breaks at different times.
  • Consider training staff on different religious events.

What Employees Should Do

You should probably assume that your employer knows nothing about Ramadan, or worse, is acting on information that is incorrect.  As savage as the situation at JBS Swift seems to have been, the workers actually handled it pretty well. Having the EEOC join as a plaintiff is a “win” in many ways. Consider organizing and appointing a spokesperson to make a specific request, in advance, in writing, for accommodation during Ramadan. Be specific about what you want.

If this effort is unsuccessful, it may be time to explore free or low-cost legal assistance, including a complaint to the EEOC. The law is designed to protect you and people of all faiths.

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