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.

On the one hand, "the only requirement that a religious belief be accommodated is that it be sincerely held," said Denise Wheeler, an employment attorney with the law firm Fowler White Boggs Banker in Fort Myers, Fla.

On the other, Wheeler said, to deny your request for religious time off, "All the employer has to show is that they can't provide the accommodation without undue hardship," meaning lost profits, efficiency or employee morale.

Shoshana Cenker, a former TV news writer and producer in Atlanta, learned this the hard way. An Orthodox Jew, she told the hiring manager at the 24/7 news station courting her that she needed certain Jewish holidays off throughout the year, as well as sundown Friday through sundown Saturday each week for the Jewish Sabbath.

"I was told, 'Of course they understood, and it would be no problem,' and they hired me," Cenker said. However, "Things quickly changed when a different manager began doing the schedule."

Although Cenker only worked part time and was happy to work any and all hours that didn't conflict with her religious worship -- even if it meant coming in at 10 p.m. on a Saturday night -- her scheduling needs didn't sit well with her new manager.

"I feared for my job every time I put in a request for days off for Jewish holidays," Cenker said. "And every time my boss made the schedule, she did not pay close enough attention to when I could and could not work, or didn't care and ended up scheduling me to work during a holiday. I ended up leaving that news station to work in PR at a Jewish day school."

Wheeler's advice? Lay any extended needs for religious time off on the table during the interview process as Cenker did. If the employer smiles sweetly and says, "Sure, no problem," do your best to get those provisions in writing.

In Praise of Floating Holidays

For all these reasons, I'm a big fan of the floating holiday concept -- letting workers pick which paid holidays they'd like off rather than mandating that everyone vacate the premises the last week of December.

According to the 2008 benefits survey the Society for Human Resource Management conducted of its members, I'm not the only one: Forty-five percent of employers offer their employees floating holidays (other than personal days), up from 34 percent in 2004.

Yvonne Huang, from Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., worked at such a company before striking out on her own as a small business owner.

"In addition to the major holidays, each employee was allowed to take off the [paid] holidays related to their personal religion or ethnicity," Huang said of the 15-person law firm where she previously worked as a legal assistant.

"Since I'm Chinese, I was allowed to take Chinese New Year," she explained. "If we wanted to take off any other religious holidays, we had to pay [the boss] $5.00. It was sort of a funny joke, but it was a real and legitimate 'offer' that our boss allowed us to partake in if we wanted. It could only happen in a small office."

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Michelle Goodman is a freelance journalist, author and former cubicle dweller. Her books — "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide: Practical Career Advice for Women Who Think Outside the Cube" and "My So-Called Freelance Life: How to Survive and Thrive as a Creative Professional for Hire" (October 2008) — offer an irreverent take on the traditional career guide. More tips on career change, flex work and the freelance life can be found on her blog,