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Holiday headaches

Accommodating different religious holidays can be a balancing act, but it all comes down to avoiding discrimination

By Jeffrey R. Smith

As we get later into the year, holidays start entering our awareness. It’s the fourth quarter, year-end is approaching, people start to make their plans and employers have to keep in mind that their employees may have different holidays according to their religion.

We have statutory holidays for employees to take time off, but not everyone celebrates those holidays. How can an employer effectively accommodate the holidays of different religions without disrupting its business while remaining fair — and human rights compliant — to everyone?

The Christian holidays of Christmas and Good Friday are recognized in employment standards legislation as statutory holidays — everyone, regardless of their religion, gets them off or gets increased holiday pay for working them. It’s become generally accepted that, although these holidays correspond to a particular religion, for employment standards and human rights purposes they are considered “secular pause days.” Therefore, someone would not be able to claim that having these days as holidays over other religious holidays was discriminatory.

However, it can be discriminatory if measures aren’t taken to allow employees of other religions to celebrate their own holidays, or to simply give them extra days off for those holidays — which would be discriminatory towards employees who celebrated Christmas and Good Friday. It may also be tough for employers as the importance of different holidays could depend not just on an employee’s religion, but also on how religious the employee is.

It’s enough to give employers a holiday headache.

There are various options for employers, such as giving time off for a religious holiday and having employees make up the time, or scheduling around it. But this isn’t always easy to do if there are set business hours. The employee could work on the statutory holidays that correspond to holidays she doesn’t celebrate, but that could also cause logistical headaches if the rest of the business is shut down. Some employees might just use a vacation day, but that also raises the spectre of discrimination, since Christian employees don’t have to use vacations days to celebrate their big holidays. It all boils down to whether employees of one religion get any extra benefit that puts employees of a different religion at a disadvantage, because of their religion.

What’s the best way to allow employees of various religions to celebrate their holidays without too much disruption to the business? Or should it just be considered a normal cost of having employees, especially in a multicultural society? Is it fair to consider the statutory holidays of Christmas and Good Friday as non-religious days off when accounting for time off for employees of differing beliefs?

Jeffrey R. Smith is the editor of Canadian Employment Law Today, a publication that looks at workplace law from a business perspective. He can be reached at or visit for more information.

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Jeffrey R. Smith

Jeffrey R. Smith is the editor of Canadian Employment Law Today, a publication that looks at workplace law from a business perspective.
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