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Sukkot 2021 – What should employers consider when employees are observing religious holidays?

Sukkot 2021 began at sundown today, Monday 20th September, and ends on the evening of Monday 27th September.

The festival of Sukkot commemorates the years that Jewish people spent in the desert on their way to the promised land and celebrates the way in which God protected them under the difficult desert conditions.

Traditionally, Sukkot is celebrated by building a sukkah (a type of hut) and eating and even sleeping in the sukkah for the duration of the holiday, although this is less common in the UK.

Many Jewish people do not engage in work activites on the first day of the holiday which may cause employers to question what rights their employees have in relation to this and when observing religious days/holidays.

What rights do employees have for time off for religious observance?

Employees may require time off to observe a religious festival and/or holiday which is not covered by statutory holiday or for prayers. There is no automatic right to take time off to observe religious holidays and employers are not under an obligation to grant all requests for leave for religious observance.

However, employers should act very carefully in such circumstances and give proper consideration to any such requests. This is to ensure that an employer is not unlawfully discriminating against an employee or at risk of claims under religious discrimination legislation by refusing to authorise leave on the basis of an employee’s religion.

Also ethical employers will recognise the importance to their staff of observing religious days and festivals and will want to positively encourage them to be able to take them off.

It is good practice to accommodate a request where possible and employers should consider whether the request can be dealt with by using the employee’s annual leave entitlement, flexible working or unpaid leave. An employer can however consider factors such as the needs of the business, fairness to all staff and cost-effectiveness. Employers should also take steps to check whether the business needs can be met in other ways such as whether other employees are willing to provide any necessary cover.

What can employers do to assist employees in these circumstances?

Employers should ensure they adopt a supportive approach towards allowing employees to take time off work for religious holidays including Tisha B’Av and should consider taking the following action:

  • Implement a clear policy on time off to observe religious holidays. It is important to have clear and visible policies to create an inclusive workplace as employees may not feel comfortable with making a request if it is not clear how such a request will be dealt with.
  • Ensure an employee’s individual requirements are known and that any equal opportunities, leave and other policies cover taking time off for religious purposes. Employers should ensure that there is not a practice, criterion or policy (PCP) in place which, when applied to all employees, has the effect of putting a particular group at a disadvantage.
  • HR/managers should ensure they are aware of all upcoming religious holidays/events and the date on which they occur so they can plan accordingly.
  • Provide diversity training to all staff and implement an equal and non-discriminatory process for handling requests to take time off for religious reasons.
  • Consider providing a quiet room for prayers and be flexible in accommodating requests for time off for prayer during working hours. This could include allowing employees to make up the time through shorter lunch breaks or working late.
  • Ethical employers may consider offering all employees additional well-being days which they can take at their discretion throughout the year either for religious holidays or for whatever it is that gives them inspiration and fulfilment.

Our specialist employment lawyers have many years’ of experience advising businesses on employment contracts and policies. If you require our advice, please call us on 0808 252 5231 or request a call back online at your convenience.