Religious Accommodation in the Workplace

Religious Accommodation in the Workplace

As a member of Saskatoon’s Islamic community, it has been my great privilege to meet and get to know many immigrant families.  Most of the families I have met come to Saskatoon from a number of Asian and African countries, and the reasons for their immigration are various.  To study at the University of Saskatchewan is one very common reason.  Many of these students bring spouses and families with them during the term of their studies. 
Although foreign students are predominantly focused on their studies, many of them choose also to work performing research or assisting professors in exchange for funding for their study terms.  Not so many years ago, it was not possible for foreign students to work off campus in order to generate more income for themselves, but recent revisions to study permit rules now allow outside employment to some extent.  Many of the spouses and family members of the students also wish to access outside employment opportunities.  All of this has led to a significant influx of workers who may not be aware of their workplace rights in this country, and more specifically, in this province.  And, I have found, many people born and raised right here in Saskatchewan also have questions around topics generally of interest to immigrant workers. 
When I approached Dr. Ahmed Shoker, Editor-in-Chief of Muslim Nextdoor Journal, to propose an ongoing “question and answer”- based column to address workplace issues, I was rewarded with Dr. Shoker’s great enthusiasm and support for the concept.  So, after extensive research into suitable and interesting topics, with special thanks to Catherine McKenzie for her conceptual assistance, this column is ready to go.
Please send your feedback and questions about workplace issues to:


Angela Hosni, B.Comm. CHRP
Employee Representative

November 2010
Q: With Eid Al Adha just around the corner, what are an employee’s rights regarding attending prayer services during scheduled work time? 
A:  This particular issue falls under the broader topic of the Duty to Accommodate, which has its basis within anti-discrimination legislation.  Under the Saskatchewan Human Rights Code, religion is one of fourteen prohibited grounds of discrimination in Saskatchewan workplaces (the others are race, creed, colour, gender, sexual orientation, family status, marital status, disability, age, nationality, ancestry, place of origin and receipt of public assistance).  
Besides prohibiting employers from causing or allowing inappropriate or discriminatory treatment of employees on any of the fourteen grounds, the legislation also provides employees the right to be accommodated on the basis of any of these grounds, usually upon request.  Many workplaces also have employment policies or collective bargaining agreements containing language addressing such diversity-related issues.  But rather than referring to specifics contained within particular language, I will describe the general steps involved in accommodation requests.
Employees wishing to attend religious services during times they are usually scheduled to be at work must approach their supervisors or managers to make these requests.  It is best for them to provide requests in writing and keep copies for their own records.  Once an employer receives such a request, he or she will need to assess the operational needs in the work area of the employee, to determine whether the organization has the ability to allow the employee time off to attend the religious service. 
If the employer decides that the organization does have the operational ability to allow the employee time away from work to attend religious services as requested, the employee should be provided with written confirmation granting this request.  Such time off can be granted with or without pay under Saskatchewan legislation, based on the employer’s own past practices and general policies.  Often, employers are willing to alter the work schedule of employees to accommodate recurring religious obligations.
If the employer decides that the organization does not have the operational ability to allow the employee time away from work to attend religious services as requested, it is the obligation of that employer to prove that allowing such time off creates an undue  (meaning significant) hardship upon the organization.  The test of hardship upon the employer generally includes such factors as excessive financial cost, extreme unfairness to other employees, and the physical inability to operate in the employee’s absence.  If the employer’s decision not to grant the request cannot be justified on the basis of these factors, the employee has the right to contact the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission to have the request assessed further.  The employer and the employee are both required to follow any decision or instructions given by the Human Rights Commission about their issue. 
Anyone wishing to request an accommodation like the one outlined above is advised to do so well in advance of the time they need off.  Most employers find such accommodations more difficult if expected to grant them within a short time period.