Are You Prepared for the Workplace Challenges That Will Rise With the Solar Eclipse?
Unless you have been living under a rock, you should know by now that on August 21, 2017, a total solar eclipse will cross the continental United States, coast to coast. While the entire country will experience a partial eclipse, a total eclipse will occur along a roughly 70-mile-wide band, referred to as the “path of totality,” which spans parts of 14 states. Among the states in the path of totality are Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina.
Those within the path of totality can observe a total solar eclipse, where the moon will completely cover the sun, and the sun’s corona will be visible. Observers outside the path of totality will see a partial solar eclipse, where the moon covers part of the sun’s disk, which will be visible in every U.S state.
Because of this once-in-a-lifetime cosmic event, the number of people traveling throughout the United States will likely reach record numbers. Recent estimates reflect that approximately 12 million people live in the path of totality. Not only that, but approximately 75 million people are located within 200 miles of the totality path.
Nearly all employers will be impacted by the increased travel associated with the solar eclipse, especially those that operate in or near the path of totality. Even if employees do not take a whole day off work to travel to locations within the path of totality, they may ask for time off work to view the event from their current locations. Accordingly, employers are likely to be inundated with requests for time off on August 21. Moreover, employers may face challenges caused by unplanned employee absences, which could substantially impair operations if not planned for ahead of time. In addition, while it is probably not the first thing that pops into one’s mind concerning the impact of an eclipse, employers must take care to ensure they will satisfy their legal obligations with respect to accommodating requests for time off for religious reasons. Employers that are adequately prepared can easily minimize the workplace disruptions caused by the solar eclipse on August 21.
When faced with an increased number of requests for time off, employers should do everything possible to follow their standard policies and procedures for granting time-off requests. In an ideal world, employers would have the capacity to accommodate all employee requests for time off, but that certainly may not be possible based on operational needs.
In situations where employers cannot possibly approve all time-off requests because of operational constraints or otherwise, they may want to use some mechanism for prioritizing the requests, such as the time a request was submitted. If feasible, employers should provide employees advance notice of temporary modifications in their time-off policies, preferably in writing, and endeavor to apply the modified practices as consistently as possible. The key is to enforce time-off policies uniformly. For example, an employer must take care not to grant requests for time off to view the solar eclipse, while denying requests off for other reasons, which could ultimately lead to discrimination claims.
Even with established procedures for requesting time off, employers will likely be faced with the challenges resulting from the last-minute, unplanned absences of employees. The best way to deal with such challenges is to plan ahead and assume that at least a couple of employees will unexpectedly be absent on August 21. By planning ahead, management can ensure that operational needs are being satisfied, even if it is shorthanded.
Another issue that could arise in connection with the solar eclipse is a large number of suspicious, unannounced absences by employees. For example, an employee may tell his or her employer that he or she is sick and not coming to work on August 21, but the employer may have doubts regarding the reason for the employee’s absence. In this situation, the employer would be wise to apply its sick leave policy in the same manner it always has and not request a doctor’s note unless that is the employer’s standard practice. Moreover, an employer should consult the applicable law in the states in which it operates to determine if there are any limitations on requesting a doctor’s note in situations such as this.
Proactive employers may decide to limit absences on August 21 by offering incentives to come to work on that day. One possibility might be to schedule fun, team-building events centered on the eclipse, such an outside pizza party to view the event. Such a gathering is sure to improve employee morale, build comradery among colleagues, and help minimize unplanned absences. Another suggestion would be to have a raffle or prize drawing in which employees must be at work on August 21 to participate.
Potential for Religious Requests
Employers must be cognizant of the possibility that employees may request accommodations based on their religious beliefs and practices in relation to the solar eclipse. Among other things, an employee may request time off to observe the solar eclipse, which the employee claims to be specifically tied to his or her religious beliefs and observances.
Under federal law and the majority of state antidiscrimination laws, employers are prohibited from discriminating against employees or applicants based on religion. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 has a broad definition of “religion” and protects all types of religious beliefs and all aspects of religious observance and practice. According to guidance issued by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, protected faiths include not only the major, well-recognized religions, but also “religious beliefs that are new, uncommon, not part of a formal church or sect, only subscribed to by a small number of people, or that seem illogical or unreasonable to others.” Accordingly, just because an employer might not see a connection between the eclipse and religious beliefs does not mean that an employee does not sincerely see one. Employers must therefore tread carefully if faced with requests for religious accommodation in connection with the solar eclipse.
- To the extent possible, employers should try to enforce time-off policies consistently.
- In advance of the August 21 solar eclipse, employers should give notice of any changes to standard time-off policies.
- Some unexpected absences will be inevitable on August 21, and management should plan accordingly.
- Employers may be able to increase attendance on August 21 with team-building events.
- An obligation to accommodate employees’ religious beliefs in connection with the eclipse could arise.