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April 25, 2006 > Watercooler Counsel

Watercooler Counsel

Breaking the Rules for Religion

by Rich Proulx

Q: I recently hired someone to work in my store. When I gave him his first schedule, he said he could not work on Saturdays because he was a Seventh Day Adventist and it was against his religion. All my employees work an occasional Saturday. Do I need to give him special treatment?
- Frustrated Manager, Hayward

A: Well, the law does require an employer provide employees with needed accommodations because of their religion. There are many types of requests for religious accommodation, such as taking breaks for prayer or wearing religious garb that violates the dress code. To qualify, the employee has to have a "sincerely-held religious belief" that conflicts with a job requirement, and notify the employer of the conflict and need for a change. When it happens, as seems to be the case here, you do have a responsibility to accommodate the employee - as long it does not cause you more than a minimal hardship. If you're a small employer and the only way to have this employee not work Saturdays is by paying thousands of dollars in overtime pay each year, that's probably more than a minimal hardship. However, with a little creativity, these issues can often be worked out without any additional expense, such as scheduling the employee on twice as many Sundays or allowing employees a system of voluntarily swapping shifts.

Q: My job requires me to drive a lot for work. I use my own car and pay for my own insurance (the state required minimum). Recently, my employer told me that because of changes in their global liability insurance policy, I need to pay to increase my amount of car insurance. Can they make me do this?
- Lighter Pockets, Milpitas

A: Ouch! The bad news is, according to the U.S. Dept. of Labor, under federal law an employer may take deductions (or require employees to pay for work-related expenses) only if it does not bring the person below the federal minimum wage of $5.15 an hour. The classic example is where an employer provides a miner with the necessary tools or lamps then deducts the expense of those items from the miner's paycheck. The good news is that since you live in California, state law also applies. According to RenŽe Bacchini, Public Information Officer for the CA Dept. of Industrial Relations, employers must reimburse employees for "all necessary expenditures or losses incurred by the employee in direct consequence or discharge of his or her duties". If your employer requires that you purchase car insurance in excess of the state minimum required, this expense must be reimbursed by your employer.

Rich and his team of government experts love scratching their heads over your questions.

CUNY's American Religious identification survey in 2001 of over 50,000 Americans found 77 percent belonged to one of 35 different Christian religious groups (down from 86 percent in 1990), 4 percent belonged to 20 other religion groups (up from 3 percent in 1990), and 14 percent belonged to no religion (up from 8 percent in 1990).

Send your questions to, whose day job is Supervisory Investigator for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Identifying information in the questions may be fictional.

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