On Monday August 21, 2017, in the middle of the workday, millions of people will abandon their jobs to gaze up at the skies and experience what might well be a once-in-a-lifetime event: a total eclipse of the sun. For those on the ground along an approximately 70-mile-wide path from Oregon to North Carolina, the moon will align so as to completely block the view of the sun, bringing night to the middle of the day. (For more information about solar eclipses, see the NASA Total Eclipse website.)
This “path of totality” will bring millions together for a brief moment of wonder, and millions more throughout North America will be treated to varying degrees of a partial eclipse.
Booming sales of special eclipse-viewing glasses is not the only business impact of the eclipse. Restaurants, hotels, convenience stores, and other service-related companies along the path of totality should see an uptick in business as spectators flock to better view this cosmic event. And employers in general should consider how to address the anticipated requests for time off, as well as how to ensure employee safety—particularly for those employees who work outside.
A Sign of the Apocalypse?
The sun has had religious significance for tens of thousands of years. To this day, many cultures view the “devouring” of the sun by the moon as a reason to take special precautions. Some religious leaders consider the solar eclipse a sign from God that the end is near. Religious leaders point to the New Testament for support that the eclipse will precede Christ’s Second Coming.
While most of those who will gaze up at the skies in awe this month will not be motivated by the religious implications of an eclipse, it is advisable for employers to understand that some employees might request time away from work to engage in their protected religious practices associated with the eclipse. Under the federal equal opportunity law, Title VII, and many state discrimination statutes, employers cannot discriminate against employees based on their religious beliefs. Title VII also protects all aspects of religious observance and practice (see 42 U.S.C. § 2000e(j); 29 C.F.R. § 1605.2).
Title VII defines “religion” very broadly to include not only mainstream religious beliefs and practices, but those that are uncommon and unusual. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) guidance explains that “[f]or purposes of Title VII, religion includes not only traditional, organized religions … but also religious beliefs that are new, uncommon, not part of a formal church or sect, only subscribed to by a small number of people, or that seem illogical or unreasonable to others.”
The EEOC explains, “[r]eligious beliefs include theistic beliefs (i.e. those that include a belief in God) as well as non-theistic ‘moral or ethical beliefs as to what is right and wrong which are sincerely held with the strength of traditional religious views.’”
Moreover, Title VII, as well as some state laws, require employers to reasonably accommodate the religious practices of employees. Accordingly, an employee’s request not to work on August 21 to attend religious services, or to engage in a religious activity associated with the eclipse, may be protected and must be accommodated unless the employer will experience an undue hardship. ( The EEOC has explained that “undue hardship” means that the employer would incur more than a “de minimis” burden. 29 C.F.R. § 1605.2(e); Also, in its Questions and Answers: Religious Discrimination in the Workplace, the EEOC notes that employers should be mindful that some state have different standards that are more favorable to the employee.)
So, when considering an employee’s request for eclipse-related time off, employers should listen carefully to whether the request is framed as a need to engage in a protected religious practice.
An Ounce of Prevention
Even if it doesn’t signal the end of the world, the eclipse is not without its potential hazards at the workplace, particularly for those who work outside. Employers should provide direction to employees who will be working at construction sites and other outdoor areas on how to handle their work during the loss of illumination. Employers might want to consider reassigning employees who are working in areas that will be besieged by sudden crowds, or ensure that driving duties and appointments are scheduled around peak eclipse watching.
Some employers are embracing the eclipse as a lunch event, or providing added break times for eclipse watchers. But it is no myth that staring into the sun is dangerous. For employers planning eclipse gatherings or allowing employees added break time to go outdoors, it might be a good idea to provide employees with guidance on the hazards of watching the eclipse directly and how to create their own pinhole viewer, or even offer eclipse glasses, which are currently being sold online in bulk.
Where Did Everybody Go?
Finally, expect a flurry of last-minute requests for time off and unplanned absences. Employers will want to ensure all time-off requests are assessed fairly and consistently with company practice so as to avoid allegations of discrimination of favoritism. A reward system or lottery system could be implemented should the number of requests prove overwhelming.
If significant absences may pose operational difficulties, now might be a good time to remind employees of the proper way to request time-off in advance, and the repercussions of failing to adhere to call-in procedures.
Just because the sun is making a disappearing act on August 21, it doesn’t mean your employees—and your office productivity—have to follow suit.
|Shirley Lerner is a shareholder in the Minneapolis office of Littler Mendelson, the world’s largest employment and labor law practice representing management. She defends and advises businesses in a diverse range of industries on employment law matters, human resources administration and business practicalities. Ms. Lerner can be reached at (612) 313-7601 or firstname.lastname@example.org.|