Prayer Breaks, Flexible Hours Helpful During Ramadan

Simple workplace adjustments can accommodate Muslim holiday

By Tamara Lytle Jun 1, 2015
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Years ago, if you had asked many employers about accommodating Ramadan in the workplace, they likely would have had no idea what you were talking about.

But as workforces become increasingly diverse, today’s employers are more aware of the importance of this Muslim holiday, and more informed about finding ways to accommodate their employees who observe it.

“The world is changing, the workplace is changing and our population is changing. Employers need to be more cognizant of the need to treat Muslim employees seeking religious accommodations the same way they would treat Christians and Jews,” said Hope Eastman, senior partner and employment lawyer at Paley Rothman LLC in Bethesda, Md. 

Ariela Keysar, associate director at the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, estimated in a 2008 study that the U.S. workforce includes between 1 million and 1.5 million Muslims.

This year, Ramadan accommodations could be especially important because the month-long holiday for most starts on June 18—coinciding with the longest days of the year—and ends July 17. (Regional differences can mean some Muslims observe a slightly different start date.) Muslims are required to fast during daylight hours for the month of Ramadan. That means that some employees may be abstaining from all food and water for some 16 hours a day—no easy feat, especially for those who work outdoors in physically demanding jobs.

Imam Johari Abdul-Malik, of the Northern Virginia mosque Dar Al-Hijrah, checks on the Islamic Society of North America website for calculations on when Ramadan begins and how long the fasting day of dawn to sundown lasts. 

Ramadan follows the lunar calendar—which is 11 months long—so it falls during different parts of the standard solar calendar over the years. 

Abdul-Malik said the first step for employers is understanding the importance of observing Ramadan as one of the five pillars of the Muslim faith. Many Muslims, even those who aren’t particularly observant the rest of the year, fast from dawn until sunset and pray five times a day during this time. The month ends with Eid al-Fitr, an important family celebration that is similar in importance to Christmas or Easter for Christians.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for religious practices that don’t cause an undue hardship on the company.

“You have an obligation, in many circumstances, to accommodate clothing, daily prayer and some need for time off,” Eastman said.

The tricky part is that there’s no bright-line test to determine what accommodations are required and which aren’t, so employers need to decide for themselves what accommodations they can offer. 

Allowing prayer breaks for certain workers, such as white-collar managers, may be easier than for others, such as grocery store clerks. But David Barron, member of the Houston law firm Cozen O’Connor, said that companies can find ways to allow a prayer break, for instance, even if it’s not at the exact time an employee requests.

“The most important thing you can do is be flexible and think about it before you make a hard-line negative decision,” Eastman said.

Here are some of the ways employers can accommodate their Muslim employees during Ramadan:

  • Adjust work hours. For employees doing strenuous work, starting before the heat of the day helps avoid dehydration, and working after sunset allows them to drink water while they work. Barron said that’s especially important in places like his state of Texas, where dehydration is a safety issue for outdoor workers.
  • Provide a supportive environment whether someone is fasting or not. Abdul-Malik said the religion does allow exemptions from some fasting rules, for instance if an individual is traveling or if his or her health is compromised. 
  • Offer light-duty jobs or job swaps for those who are fasting.
  • Allow flexible breaks. An employee who’s not eating lunch might want to skip a break and get home earlier to break the fast with family. Or an evening shift worker might need to take a later dinner break after sunset, when they can eat, instead of earlier when they can’t eat.
  • Offer a place for prayer. An empty conference room, for instance, is much better than a stairwell, Abdul-Malik said.
  • Find a spot where fasters can nap during breaks, because fasting makes some people tired.
  • Be careful about requiring workers to attend lunch meetings. Watching colleagues eat while one is fasting could understandably be difficult. Barron said meetings should be held at other times of the day, when at all possible, or fasters can be excused and then briefed afterwards.
  • Let people use time off during Ramadan and especially during Eid al-Fitr. Eastman said many of her clients offer a floating holiday that employees can use for days such as Eid or the Jewish holidays.

“Accommodations give employees a sense of being valued,” Abdul-Malik said. “That sensitivity breeds productivity.”

Eastman said some CEOs send out a company letter acknowledging Ramadan, which sends the message they are treating it like the major holidays of other religions.

“Everyone likes to be acknowledged. Without making the workplace a religious place, religious accommodation and acknowledgement is the key,” Abdul-Malik said.

Tamara Lytle is a freelance writer based in Falls Church, Va

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