Navigating Holidays in the Workplace

Navigating Holidays in the Workplace can be Difficult. The federal government and many private employers observe 12 holidays. The federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) does not require that employers count time not worked because of a holiday to determine if an employee has worked more than 40 hours in a work week. There is also no federal requirement to pay a premium such as time-and-a-half to employees for working on a holiday. Many companies require employees to complete an initial 30- to 90-day period before they are eligible to receive holiday pay.

National Holidays Observed by Government Employers

The federal government has designated certain days as national holidays.

Federal government offices and national banks close their offices in observance of national holidays (5 USCA Sec. 6103). Most states observe the same holidays as those observed by the federal government. There are variations, however.

National holidays:

Days designated as holidays by the federal government are:

New Year’s Day January 1
Inauguration Day January 20 (every fourth year, after a presidential election)
Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. Third Monday in January
President’s Birthday Third Monday in February
Memorial Day Last Monday in May
Independence Day July 4
Labor Day First Monday in September
Columbus Day Second Monday in October
Veterans Day November 11
Thanksgiving Day Fourth Thursday in November
Christmas Day December 25

Federal holidays will be observed on Friday if they occur on a Saturday. And on Monday if they occur on a Sunday.

Private Employment

Private employers are not required to observe national holidays, except for banks that follow the Federal Reserve Board schedule. Granting paid time off for holidays in private employment is more a matter of custom than law.

Standard Holidays

Private employers almost universally observe six holidays. The “standard six” are New Year’s Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Thanksgiving Day, and Christmas Day. After the standard six, the Friday after Thanksgiving, Good Friday, and Presidents Day are the next most observed holidays across the nation. However, employers have discretion when it comes to determining whether to grant holidays and, if so, which days to observe.

Other Religious Holidays

It is important for employers to be sensitive to an individual employee’s religious obligations regarding holiday observances. Employers should accommodate an employee’s request for time off for a holiday observance if the accommodation does not require more than a de minimis cost or burden to business operations (i.e., does not create an undue hardship).

Some courts have ruled that requiring employees to take paid or unpaid leave on days they wish to observe as personal religious holidays meets the test of reasonable accommodation. Many employers grant all employees one or two paid personal days or floating holidays each year for this purpose.

For many in America, the holiday season is the annual splurge of parties, celebrations, and consumption that spans from Halloween to New Year’s Day. Somewhere between the candy, turkey, and champagne, most workplaces stop to observe Christmas. But Christians aren’t the only ones with sacred holidays during the holiday season.

Bodhi Day

On December 8, Buddhists celebrate Bodhi Day to commemorate the day Buddha attained enlightenment under the Bodhi tree. To the Buddhist, it is a day of remembrance and meditation, much like the Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus on December 25.


Hanukkah, “The Festival of Lights,” is an 8-day holiday that celebrates when the Jews regained control of Jerusalem and rededicated the temple after its desecration by the forces of the king of Syria. According to Jewish law and custom, the primary ritual of Hanukkah is the lighting of candles each night, so employees may want to leave early so that they can be home to light the candles at nightfall. The dates of Hanukkah are determined by the Hebrew calendar and can fall anywhere from late November to late December.


In 1966, Kwanzaa was created by author, political activist, and college professor Maulana Karenga as the first specifically African-American holiday. Its observation is from December 26 to January 1 as a “celebration of family, community, and culture.”

Ashura and Eid al-Adha

For Muslims, Ashura commemorates the day Nuh (Noah) left the Ark and the day that Musa (Moses) was saved from the Egyptians by Allah, and the martyrdom of Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet Mohammed. It is a day of fasting for Sunni Muslims.

Muslims celebrate Eid al-Adha, the “Festival of Sacrifice” or “Greater Eid,” in commemoration of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Ishmael as an act of obedience to God. As part of the holiday, men, women, and children are expected to dress in their finest clothing and join a large congregation in an open area or mosque for prayer.

Although Eid al-Adha is always on the same day of the Islamic calendar, the date on the Gregorian calendar (also known as the western or Christian calendar) varies from year to year since it is a solar calendar and the Islamic calendar is a lunar calendar. Furthermore, Eid al-Adha falls on one of two different Gregorian dates in different parts of the world because the boundary of crescent visibility is different from the international date line. It should be noted that in the Muslim calendar, a holiday begins at sunset on the previous day.

Employers are required to reasonably accommodate religious practices unless accommodation would cause an undue hardship on the conduct of business.

Navigating Holidays in the Workplace – Decking the Halls

A potentially difficult issue for employers during the holidays is whether to allow employees to decorate their workspaces with religious symbols and whether the company itself should decorate. Employees don’t have an absolute right to engage in religious speech and expression in the workplace. Employers may establish reasonable restrictions on their manner of religious speech or expression in the workplace. If employees generally able to decorate their workspaces with pictures and other items, a prohibition on decorations that are religious might be discriminatory. Also, one religion should not receive favoritism over another. If one employee can put up Christmas decorations, another one should be able to put up Kwanzaa decorations.

There is a distinction between allowing employees to decorate their personal workspaces and the company decorating the office. An employers should never promote one religion over another or endorse religion generally. Accordingly, decorations should stick to a general holiday theme rather than focusing on Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and so on. It’s best to keep decorations as nonspecific and neutral as possible. The same considerations apply to the office holiday party.

Navigating Holidays in the Workplace – Floating Holidays

In recent years, many employers have begun using a bank of “floating” holidays in full or partial replacement of a system of company-designated holidays. Floating holidays are days that the employee can self-designate as holidays in order to take a day off. Employees may use floating holidays to observe a religious holiday, create a long weekend when a company-recognized holiday falls on a Thursday, take a day off on his or her birthday, etc.

Some companies use a combination of designated and floating holidays, and a small but growing group of employers use floating holidays exclusively. If your company employs a floating holiday system, you may wish to implement specific rules and procedures that provide for ample notice to the employer when an employee chooses to designate a floating holiday.

Overtime Issues

The FLSA requires that covered employers pay nonexempt employees 11/2 times their regular rate for all hours worked in excess of 40 in a workweek. Because time off for holidays is not “hours worked,” holiday time is excluded from the overtime calculation. (However, although they are under no statutory obligation to do so, some employers choose to include holiday time off in the overtime calculation.) Similarly, the FLSA does not require employers to pay time-and-a-half to employees who work on designated holidays unless that time exceeds 40 hours in the workweek.


An employee works 9 hours a day Monday through Thursday for a total of 36 hours. Friday is a holiday, and the employee has the day off. Under an established policy, the company pays the employee for 8 hours on holidays, and the regular workweek runs Sunday through Saturday. Although the employee will receive pay for 44 hours, they worked only 36 hours. The employee is entitled only to straight time for all 44 hours.

However, the employee would have been entitled to 4 hours of overtime if the employee had actually worked 8 hours on the Friday. Overtime pay is due not because Friday was a holiday, but because the hours worked on that day put the employee over the 40-hour mark.

Holiday premium

Although they are under no statutory obligation to do so, many companies pay employees their regular pay plus a premium when they work on a scheduled holiday. Under the FLSA, holiday premiums need not be considered in calculating the employee’s “regular rate” for overtime purposes. In addition, holiday premiums can offset overtime pay due under the FLSA. The FLSA isn’t the only federal law that can interact with holidays. There is information on how to handle holidays that fall during an employee’s Family and Medical Leave Act leave.


Many companies require employees to complete an initial 30- to 90-day period before they are eligible to receive pay for holiday time off. To prevent absenteeism near holidays, some employers require employees to work the last workday before and the first workday after a holiday in order to receive pay for the holiday. Many companies pay part-time and temporary employees for holiday time off. Usually the amount of compensation for part-time workers is prorated on basis of the number of hours the employee regularly works.

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