Skip to content

4 misconceptions about federal and religious holiday labor laws

[Written for Replicon blog]

Planning on taking some time off for the holidays? Make sure you’re clear on what the law allows, and what your employer allows. The following will hopefully clarify some misconceptions about vacations, religious and federal holidays, and the labor laws surrounding them:

My employer can’t make me work on a federal holiday

Sadly, the law views holidays as just another business day, so whether or not you have to work is entirely up to your employer’s discretion if you work for a private company. Holidays like Thanksgiving, Memorial Day, MLK Day, and Christmas are referred to as “federal” holidays precisely because they apply to employees of the federal government.

While many private employers offer some or all federal holidays off as an employee benefit, there is no law requiring them to do so.

If I have to work on a federal holiday then I get paid overtime rates

Unfortunately, federal holidays don’t have any special designation for overtime pay, and working on a holiday is not considered overtime. In other words — regular overtime rules apply, since the law treats federal holidays as just another business day.

Like usual, if you qualify for overtime pay, and you work over 40 hours during the week of a federal holiday, then you are entitled to “time and a half” pay for the hours worked over 40. If you work in Alaska, California, Nevada, Puerto Rico, or the Virgin Islands, then you can calculate your overtime based on a daily standard (rather than weekly) — anything over eight hours in a day qualifies for overtime pay. Colorado also has a daily overtime standard, only higher — anything over 12 hours in a day qualifies.

My employer is required to offer at least some paid holidays

Technically, under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), employers are only required to pay for time worked. Even if they give you time off for federal or religious holidays, they aren’t legally required to provide any pay for those days.

That being said, many businesses do instate company policies that allow for a certain number of paid vacation days as an employee benefit.

Failing to accommodate my religious practices is religious discrimination

This one can be tricky — while a failure to accommodate religious practices does at times qualify as religious discrimination, there are some notable exceptions.

In general, you can ask for a “reasonable accommodation” if you let your employer know ahead of time that there is some conflict between your religious observances and your work schedule. Your employer must then find a way to eliminate this conflict between religious and work obligations, provided this doesn’t impose an “undue hardship” on his or her business. An “undue hardship” is vaguely defined as “an accommodation that is too costly or difficult to provide,” and in the past has been interpreted to mean anything from an increase in regular administrative costs to anything that reduces workplace efficiency.

Instances of religious discrimination are typically determined by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on a case-by-case basis, but know that there’s a chance your employer doesn’t have to accommodate you, if undue hardship can be proven.