“Towel head,” “Osama,” and “Taliban,” are just a few of the names that Muslim employees have been called in the workplace since September 11, 2001. These employees have also reported that employers have refused to accommodate their religious obligations. Antipathy toward Muslims has only increased since September 11, culminating in “Islamophobia” recently espoused during debates regarding the building of mosques or Islamic cultural centers, an attack on a Muslim New York City cab driver, and threats from a Florida pastor to burn the Koran. American media from Time magazine to ABC’s This Week are exploring the hostility that Americans have expressed toward Muslims. There is no doubt that conversations regarding these current events are seeping into the workplace and commingling with anti-Muslim comments. At the same time, reports show that in 2009 Muslim employees reported more discrimination complaints than ever before. We can only expect 2011 will see even more complaints regarding alleged discrimination on the basis of an employee’s Islamic faith.
Employers should be wary of conversations that could reveal discriminatory animus toward Muslims and be aware of accommodations that may be requested by Muslim employees. Prohibiting bigoted speech in the workplace is an obvious policy for employers, but the accommodations that may be requested by Muslim employees may not be so commonplace, given that Muslims make up only 2% of the U.S. population. Below is a list of accommodations that employers may consider offering to Muslim employees, if such accommodations do not cause an undue hardship:
- Allow Prayer Breaks — Muslims pray five times a day and the timing of these prayers changes throughout the year based on the position of the sun. The prayers take approximately five to fifteen minutes and require a clean, quiet space.
- Permit the Wearing of a Hijab or Head Scarf — Many Muslim women wear headscarves in accordance with their belief that they should cover their hair.
- Alter Timing of Meal Breaks — During Ramadan, Muslims fast from sunrise to sundown. Some devout Muslims also fast on Mondays and Thursdays throughout the year. Muslim employees may request that their meal break be adjusted to sundown so that they may eat as soon as permissible.
- Adjusting Work Schedule on Fridays — On Fridays, midday prayers are replaced with prayers at the local mosque or other place of worship. Muslim employees may require time beyond their meal breaks to attend such prayers.
- Allow Vacation Days for Religious Holidays — Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha are two periods during which Muslim employees often seek time off. Eid al-Fitr is celebrated at the end of Ramadan and Eid al-Adha takes place approximately seventy days after Ramadan. The Muslim calendar does not correspond with the Gregorian calendar.
- Permit Men To Have Facial Hair — Observant Muslim men are religiously required to maintain facial hair. If such facial hair would conflict with health and hygiene requirements, consider providing a beard cover.
Employers must ensure that Muslim employees are protected from discrimination and are provided with reasonable accommodations for their religious practices. Not only is this the right thing to do, but employers who fail to take such actions face liability under Title VII and various state and local laws. Indeed, recent actions and investigations brought by the EEOC demonstrate that the agency is particularly focused on discrimination against Muslim employees.
Conversations regarding these current events are seeping into the workplace and commingling with anti-Muslim comments. At the same time, reports show that in 2009 Muslim employees reported more discrimination complaints than ever before.