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Accommodating Muslim Employees During Ramadan
Flexible hours, frequent breaks and a quiet room help those who are fasting and praying

By Joan Mooney  7/2/2013
When Hamdija Custovic fasts from dawn to sundown on a workday during the month in which the Muslim holiday of Ramadan is observed, he realizes how many corporate meetings involve food. It's often hard for someone who is fasting—and may be quite hungry—to be around other people who are eating.

 "I have to say no to any lunch invitations," said Custovic, a Muslim and midlevel manager at a major financial institution in Charlotte, N.C. "I say, 'No, it's Ramadan; let's try to reschedule.' Most people are very accommodating." He encourages employers not to schedule mandatory meetings that involve food during Ramadan.

Muslim holidays follow the lunar calendar, and in 2013, Ramadan is July 8 to Aug. 7. Not every Muslim is expected to fast. Pregnant women and those who are sick or traveling are exempt. And some simply find it too taxing to fast while meeting the demands of the workday.

"Like Lent, the goal of fasting is to cleanse your body, to give something up," explained Kemal Hamulic, a Bosnian Muslim who immigrated to the United States several years ago and now does diversity training in Michigan.

But Catholics and some other Christians fast only on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday (observed during the 40 days before Easter) and abstain from eating meat on Fridays during Lent. Even on fasting days, two light meals and one "regular" meal are allowed. Muslims who fast during Ramadan may not have even a sip of water during the day.  

For white-collar workers, there's generally not much of a change in the workday, said Ibrahim Hooper of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) in Washington, D.C. "Muslims are quite used to getting up early, eating breakfast before the break of dawn, working all day and breaking the fast in the evening."

It may be different for blue-collar workers, who often stand all day or lift heavy objects. Instead of trying to do this without nourishment or hydration, Muslims may ask to take vacation time during Ramadan.

Or the worker may simply "need an occasional break to cope with lower energy levels," said Nadhira Al-Khalili, CAIR's legal director.

When Ramadan falls during the summer and the period from dawn to sunset is much longer, Muslims can fast from about 4:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. A little understanding from managers and co-workers can be helpful. Some accommodations may not be legally required but would be good business practice. 

"There needs to be more awareness about accommodating people more proactively," said Custovic. "A lot of people are hesitant to speak up about fasting and will not ask for accommodation." It might be relatively easy to offer a fasting employee adjusted work hours and a room for prayer during Ramadan. For instance, Custovic gets up two hours earlier than usual, at 4 a.m., in the summer, so he can come to work earlier and leave earlier. And though some Muslims take five daily prayer breaks all year round, many are especially attentive to prayer during Ramadan. 

"In an office setting, I don't think it would be a big deal to take a five-minute prayer break," said Robin Shea, a partner at Constangy, Brooks & Smith LLP, a national labor and employment law firm in Winston-Salem, N.C. It could be harder, he noted, in a manufacturing plant, where the worker might have to leave a machine and might have a more difficult time finding a quiet space for prayer. Prayers involve repeated prostrations and require movement and space. However, "prayers don't have to be at a particular moment," said Shea. "Even in a manufacturing environment, the employer ought to be able to plan for it."

In addition to doing diversity training, Hamulic is the compliance officer at Sweet Express, a trucking company based in Grand Rapids. About one-sixth of the employees are Muslim. "They're on the road constantly," Hamulic said. "[Ramadan is] extremely hard on them." A schedule that requires driving all day is not conducive to prayer breaks or to the ritual breaking of the fast soon after sundown. The company sometimes tries to find temporary stationary jobs for those observing Ramadan. It also ensures that workers can use the employee lounge and kitchen in the evening so they can break their fast.

Islamic guidelines enjoin believers to break the fast as soon as possible after sundown. If schedules permit, Muslims may like a little extra time for their dinner break. The traditional way to break the fast is to eat a small snack, do a ritual cleansing and pray before eating dinner.

A common mistake companies make, said CAIR's Hooper, is being rigid about break times—insisting that a worker must take a break, say, from 7 p.m. to 7:45 p.m., when sundown is at 8 p.m. Scheduling a shift worker's dinner break after sundown is not a legally required accommodation, said Shea, but it "would be nice."

Ramadan ends with the holiday Eid-al-Fitr, which this year starts the evening of Aug. 7 and ends the following evening. It is an important religious holiday, and Muslims may want the day off. Any business with 15 or more workers is legally required to give employees time off for a religious holiday if they request it, unless doing so would create an undue hardship for the employer or co-workers, said Shea. It might present scheduling problems if a large number of Muslims are on a single work team.

"But you know you can count on these people for Christmas and New Year's," said Hamulic.

Joan Mooney is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.

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