Fortunately, most employees enjoy some legal protection under federal and Pennsylvania anti-discrimination laws. These laws provide, among other things, a requirement that most employers employing four or more persons in Pennsylvania reasonably accommodate their employees’ sincerely held religious beliefs and practices.
However, there are many misconceptions when it comes to taking time off for religious holidays. Many Americans, Jew and non-Jew alike, are either completely unaware of these protections, or they erroneously believe that they are entitled to take time off for religious holidays with no exceptions.
Generally speaking, your employer is only obligated to honor your leave request when they can accommodate your need for time off without incurring an undue hardship. This largely depends on the employer’s particular circumstances.
As a general rule, if your employer can allow you to take time off with no or minimal cost or inconvenience, they are likely required to let you do so. On the flip side, your employer is probably not required to grant you time off for the holidays if it would incur more than a minimal cost, or allowing you to take time off would violate your employer’s seniority system or union contract.
In most cases, the time you take off for religious holidays is unpaid unless you have paid time off that you can use. If you have paid time off available, your employer may require you to use it instead of taking unpaid time. While some employers will allow you to work extra hours to make up for time missed during the holidays, they are not required to do this unless they regularly allow employees to make up missed work this way. They are also not required to allow you to “trade” leave on Jewish holidays for working on secular or Christian holidays when the company is normally closed. In other words, they are not required to let you work on Christmas in exchange for taking time off on Yom Kippur.
If your beliefs and practices are insincere — meaning that you do not genuinely hold or practice them — your employer is not required to accommodate your request. Thus, it may be legal for your employer to fire you if you insist on taking a day off for Yom Kippur and then are seen using the day to feast at Red Lobster instead of fasting at the synagogue. That said, employers are not allowed to make judgments about the correctness of your religious beliefs or practices — this would be unlawful discrimination. Therefore, your employer is obligated to let you take time to go to repent on Yom Kippur if you sincerely wish to repent, regardless of your eating ham and cheese for lunch most days.
From a practical perspective, you should be prepared to patiently explain to your employer that your Jewish practice may be different from that of another Jewish employee, friend or relative. It’s not unusual to be asked why you observe Rosh Hashana for two days while your co-worker observes it for only one. Also, it’s not unheard of to find yourself telling your Jewish boss that you cannot work on Sukkot while they may have never heard of the holiday. These differences can be baffling to Jews and gentiles alike.
Finally, you have no legal protection whatsoever unless you inform your employer that you require a religious accommodation. Just saying that you want to take Monday off is not the same as saying that you need time off for Rosh Hashana. You should also give your employer a reasonable amount of notice — don’t wait until erev Rosh Hashana (the eve of Rosh Hashana) rolls around to tell your boss that you’ll be out for the next two days.
(Andrew J. Horowitz is an attorney in the Pittsburgh office of Obermayer Rebmann Maxwell & Hippel, LLP. This article is intended to impart a general understanding of the law, not to provide specific legal advice or substitute for the counsel of a licensed attorney.)