Getting Paid Holidays Means Planning First, Celebrating Later

Back in the '90s, when I was someone else's employee, I often wished I had time off for Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year.

Though I wasn't much of a templegoer, I enjoyed the family feasts and reunions that marked the holiday each fall. And while I could cook a dish the night before and take the train after work from Manhattan to the New Jersey suburbs where my relatives lived, having the day off so I didn't have to rush around would have been infinitely easier.

Dec. 24 and 25 were givens -- for everyone at my company -- but the Jewish celebrations were ever-absent from the employee holiday calendar. Surely, I deserved a couple days off in the fall to spend my own "most wonderful time of the year" shopping, cooking, watching football and fighting with relatives?

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Alas, I was young, meek and worried that requesting time off without pay for a lesser known holiday wouldn't be kosher, so to speak. Nor did I want to give up one of my precious handful of paid vacation and sick days. So I sucked it up and went to work on Rosh Hashana, eventually writing off those family celebrations as too much of a schlep.

Years later, when I became my own boss, the "Should I or shouldn't I ask for time off?" dilemma ceased to be.

But for many employees who celebrate less-common religious or cultural holidays -- Ramadan, Passover, Juneteenth and summer solstice, to name a few -- getting time off work can still be tricky.

Taking the Day Off on Your Own Dime

Ekta Chopra, a business analyst, was able to get off for her selected holidays, but she was not paid for them and had to make up for the lost time.

"I recently became a New York City employee and asked the personnel department for the list of holidays that are considered religious for different cultures," Chopra said.

"They gave me a list of Chinese, Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish, et cetera [holidays], but I was shocked that none of them included Hindu holidays. I am a Hindu. … So, I provided them my Hindu calendar and marked the most important ones."

Chopra got the handful of holidays off she needed. And so she doesn't lose out on income, she makes up the hours she misses by working longer days before and after the holidays she takes off.

"Organizations are now becoming more savvy to the needs of their people," said Jackie Valent from Menomonee Falls, Wisc., who's worked as a human resources executive for the past 20 years.

Asking for the religious time off as Chopra did "shouldn't harm you in any way," Valent explained. After all, federal law protects you against workplace discrimination for your religious or cultural beliefs. Just don't expect to be paid for those extra holidays off you request -- employers aren't legally required to cough up the cash. If you want to get paid for the day off, you'll probably have to use a vacation or personal day.

Losing My Religion?

Sometimes, though, the demands of the industry you work in can be a consideration, Valent cautioned.

"For example, I now work in retail where the holidays obviously are the biggest time of the year," she said.

Asking for extended time off between Halloween and January probably wouldn't fly, no matter what her religious beliefs.

Here, employers have the law on their side.

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