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Religious Observances Show the Need for Workplace Flexibility

This month is National Work Family Month.  It is coming on the heels of a month that included significant holidays for religious groups in America that highlights the importance of workplace flexibility.  September saw Ramadan, a most significant month for Muslims, and Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, significant for Jewish Americans.

During the past few weeks in particular, conflicts between work and religious observance were significant for many religious Americans.  Khalil is a Muslim friend of mine who works in the Midwest.  He works at a factory in Ohio where I grew up.  Friday prayers are very important to his religious life.  However, at a time when Midwestern factory jobs are disappearing and job security is scarce, Khalil feels conflicted in taking time from work for religious observance.  Ramadan highlights the focus on his faith.  It draws attention to an issue Khalil faces all year, how does he remain a good worker in a scarce job market when has Friday work hours, while staying true to his faith and its requirements for prayer?

Andrew is a member of a Jewish congregation in Maryland.  During the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur he takes time for his family and his faith.  The problem is that he works for a contractor to the U.S. government and their busiest time of year is September and October when the government's fiscal year is coming to an end and money has to be spent.  This raises conflicts as those two significant holidays conflict with the time for work.These examples are but two of the countless religious Americans from a variety of faith traditions who face conflicts between practicing their faith and succeeding at work.   As workers try and succeed in their jobs, the economic tensions of the time in which we live place great strains on these workers and their families.

For a generation, working women have been advocating for flexibility in their hours and places of work so that they can meet job and care giving responsibilities.  More recently, fathers and older works have gotten involved in arguing that workplace flexibility needs to be the standard of the American workforce.  Now a new constituency is emerging - religious Americans.  Members of religious minorities have long argued that there needs to be broader support for their taking time for religious observance.   Many of seen a broader federal role through legislation such as the Workplace Religious Freedom Act.  Others have argued that engaging workers with specific religious observance needs is best handled on an individual basis.  Yet religious Americans are no different from most workers.  We each have unique situations that require attention.  Whether it is caring for a small child, a need for time to have a baby, a desire for more retraining, the obligation to care for an aging parent, or a hope to be more physically and spiritually balanced, there is a broad and growing need for flexibility in the way Americans work.  As the needs of workers change and continue to become more complex, the basic structure of the typical American workplace has not kept up.  

We need to address workers' ability to have flexibility in the scheduling of hours; ability to have flexibility in the number of hours worked; ability to have career flexibility with multiple points for entry, exit and reentry into the workforce; and the ability to address unexpected and ongoing personal and family needs.

Religious Americans want to be balanced.  Many faith traditions suggest we do well to find a balance between our work and our personal lives.  Religious Americans have some unique challenges requiring flexibility in how, when and where they work.  However, religious Americans are not different from millions of Americans who need more flexibility for a variety of reasons.  They are one more constituency in the growing movement towards workplace flexibility.