Few issues are more sensitive for employers than accommodating employees’ religious practices and observances. In recent years, Muslim employees and their employers have struggled with how to handle the religious requirement to perform obligatory prayers while at work. Here are some suggestions.
5 Daily Prayers
Muslims are mandated by their faith to observe five daily prayers during certain intervals. The performance of the prayer requires preparation in the form of a ritual cleansing followed by the actual prayer, which consists of a series of standing, bowing, and prostrating actions accompanied by recitation of chapters from the Quran.
The five daily prayers occur at dawn, midday, midafternoon, sunset, and nighttime. With each moment comes a “window” of time in which the particular prayer should be performed.
Prayer times will fluctuate throughout the year as they correspond with the rising and setting of the sun. Long summer days may see only one prayer “come due” during the workday, while short winter days may have up to three “come due” during a typical 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. shift.
Employers not familiar with the practice of the salat (or the Islamic daily prayers) may have legitimate questions and concerns:
- How will the company keep up productivity if an employee is constantly taking prayer breaks?
- What if the employer doesn’t have enough employees to keep operations running while an individual prays?
- Just how far must the company go to accommodate the practice?
It all depends. According to the religious accommodation protections required under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, you must accommodate sincerely held religious practices so long as they don’t pose an undue hardship to your business. The statute’s undue hardship test requires a case-by-case analysis because every request will have its own set of unique facts.
The standard for the undue hardship analysis is the employer must demonstrate the accommodation poses “more than a de minimis” cost or burden. Your company bears the burden of showing a court that if you were to accommodate the prayer breaks, you would suffer more than a trivial amount of harm.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC) compliance manual provides the following instructive example:
Rashid, a janitor, tells his employer on his first day of work that he practices Islam and will need to pray at several prescribed times during the workday in order to adhere to his religious practice of praying at five specified times each day, for several minutes, with hand washing beforehand. The employer objects because its written policy allows one 15-minute break in the middle of each morning and afternoon. Rashid’s requested change in break schedule will not exceed the 30 minutes of total break time otherwise allotted, nor will it affect his ability to perform his duties or otherwise cause an undue hardship for his employer. Thus, Rashid is entitled to accommodation.
Practical, Preventative Steps
To avoid issues that may arise when accommodating prayer breaks (including costly litigation), here are a few practical tips to keep in mind:
Neutrality. If your policy on breaks is content-neutral, well-documented, and applicable company-wide, you have a much better chance of avoiding or defending a discrimination claim. If you allow breaks only at certain times, a narrative should accompany the policy. Linking limits on breaks and time away from workstations to maintaining productivity is a legitimate business interest. Policies that aren’t content-neutral and negatively affect prayer breaks will garner scrutiny.
Compromise. Employers with neutral policies for breaks that are still encountering issues accommodating prayers may need to scale back or adjust the policies. If the standard is an issue for only one or a few individuals, the two sides can enter into an agreement acknowledging exceptions to the policy but maintaining its intent. Recent litigation has arisen out of companies’ unwillingness to adapt break policies to prayer schedules.
Understanding. You should understand Muslims are obligated to perform daily prayers. It’s a central pillar of Islam. By allowing liberal prayer breaks or crafting policies that carve out enough time to perform prayers, you can alleviate the internal conflict that Muslim employees might feel. In return, your organization can reap the benefits of more productive and mindful workers.
Rafiq R. Gharbi is an attorney with Whiteford, Taylor & Preston, L.L.P., in Baltimore, Maryland. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.