Ramadan is the month on the Islamic lunar calendar during which Muslims abstain from food and drink from dawn to dusk. It is a time when Muslims concentrate on their faith and spend less time on the concerns of everyday life. The fast is performed to learn discipline, self-restraint and generosity, while obeying the commandments of the Koran.
As the observance has become more familiar in American society, the workplace has been encouraged to provide flexibility. At issue is the question of scheduling to accommodate the month of fasting, according to Marta Nieburg, an human resource manager with TriNet, an outsource provider of benefits, payroll, and human resource.
Also, the workplace cannot restrict religious obligations because there are legal protections for religious accommodations under the Title VII Act of 1964, said Hassan Mirza, Civil Rights Consultant for the Council on American-Islamic Relations. The workplace must "reasonably" accommodate a religious request, unless that request causes an "undo hardship," Mirza added. "A significant loss of revenue for the workplace, for example, is considered an undo hardship," he said.
Any labor dispute must be reported to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that will decide whether the request is reasonable or an undo hardship, on a case-by-case situation. Title VII protects religious accommodations among many others, such as race, for only non-governmental positions. The government has it's own legal protection under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, Mirza said.
The act says that "the government shall not burden a person's exercise of religion except when there is a compelling government interest," Mirza said. In that case, it will not be considered discrimination if the government refuses the request. Again, a considerable loss of money is considered a compelling government interest. "Human Resources are very much aware of religious rights as it's becoming more and more prevalent," Mirza said.
Greg Hammond, TriNet's executive vice president said it is important to understand the cultural and legal environment in which the U.S. workplace has evolved. The American workplace "will often tend to reflect the cultural diversity of its immediate geographic environment," Hammond said. "TriNet's companies are largely in the high-tech sector, and therefore we have a very diverse group of employees," Nieburg added.
TriNet Managers tell their customers that they should always make reasonable accommodations for their religious employees in the work place. When a TriNet customer calls Nieburg for guidance on how to deal with Ramadan for example, they discuss what the employee is asking for, and whether the customer's business can support the request."I've never seen any of them refuse a religious accommodation," Nieburg said.
Mirza agrees. "Most employers are well aware and very accommodating of Muslims," he said. CAIR is very active in making employers aware of Ramadan, by publishing several pamphlets and books about religion.
It is unlikely that a given workplace will refuse a religious request, but adjusting to a particular religious holiday depends on how familiar that workplace is with the religion in question, said Hammond.
If a workplace is small and has not been exposed to a Muslim employee then that workplace may be unprepared for the observance of Ramadan. "As America's Muslim population grows, I have no doubt that we will become increasingly familiar with Islamic holidays, just as we did with the burgeoning Jewish population of the previous century," Hammond said. "This is one of our country's legal and cultural strengths. Basically, the first and most important adjustment to be made according to Hammond is the "familiarization process when confronted with something relatively new."
In Nieburg's experience with TriNet, she has realized that requests for Ramadan accommodations are not that different than requests by any other faith. However, because of the traditions of Ramadan, employees often needs more flexibility than usual to attend a place of worship, or to have an uninterrupted break for ritual prayers.
Accommodations for the lunch break are delayed until it is time to break the fast. Religious requests "almost always center on scheduling," Nieburg said and she stresses that she's never seen one of her customers refuse such a request.
TriNet Human Resources Managers encourage their customers to provide flexibility in their scheduling by allowing "Personal Time Off." Employees can use this at their discretion. This saves time that might otherwise be used by employer and employee arguing about these issues. "The employee always has a set number of days in the calendar year that can be used for personal worship," Nieburg said.
Human Resources is focusing on religion in the work place, now more than ever, since the aftermath of the terrorist attacks. "We've been able to open up a dialogue with employees," Nieburg said, and as a result Human Resources Mangers have become better at recognizing each employee's individual need for religious accommodations.
It is important to inform supervisors about Ramadan -- in terms of when it starts and ends and what accommodations are needed. TriNet's Human Resources Managers always work with their clients to remind them about proper holiday practices in the work place. "We communicate about the need to respect all employees and their religious needs, using a variety of customer newsletters, both hard copy and electronic," Nieburg said.
It is true that not all employees understand the history and principles of Ramadan, but they do recognize it as a significant religious holiday in the lives of many employees, Nieburg said. "I don't personally believe that not understanding Ramadan leads to discrimination -- as long as the company and its management promote a company culture that respects all religions equally," she added.
Hammond agrees. He doesn't believe that Ramadan will provoke discrimination in the workplace. The observance of Ramadan doesn't require anything more than any other religious holiday will require. TriNet provides additional holidays or "floating days off" that employees can use whenever they want, Hammond said. "If observance of particular holy days requires some form of abstention, fasting, or prayer, I cannot imagine the workplace which would deny such desires."
Rather than confrontation becoming an issue when discussing religious holidays, Hammond recommends discussion and openness to the viewpoints of others. One is not required to understand fully either Ramadan or Islam in order not to discriminate against a Muslim. "It is only necessary to subscribe to basic tenets of U.S. culture and law," Hammond said.
Often Islamic students in the United States have it much easier than those who work. Miriam Barhoush, 23, a law student at George Washington University said the rationale behind fasting is captured better when she is fasting in the United States rather than in the Middle East, because it takes more sacrifice and discipline. But because she is a student, she has more flexibility therefore it's not difficult for her. "As a student, I have some leeway in adjusting my hours. I usually spend my fasting hours in class or doing busy work because my concentration level is lower," Barhoush said. "I keep any studying or intense work for after I eat."