Life Goes On Holy Month Ramadan and American Businesses

in life •  last year


The holy month  of Ramadan is a  period of heightened religiosity, spiritual reflection, and charity for  Muslims around the world. It is also a time during which many abstain  from food and drink from sunrise to sundown, as fasting during Ramadan  is one of the five fundamental pillars of Islam—as well as one of the  most universally observed Islamic practices. In the Islamic world, the pace of daily life is drastically  altered as businesses across industries adjust to meet the demands of a  fasting populace. Muslim-American poet Daniel Abdal-Hayy Moore describes  in verse the dramatic impact of the fast: “and when we fast during  daylight hours,” he writes, “we turn / the whole thing upside-down, so  that / day becomes night”.  As business hours shift and Muslims devote more time to  religious activities, Muslim-majority countries see significant economic  impacts. Productivity may decline by as much as 35% to 50%, and an economic assessment  of multiple countries in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC)  suggests that many lose an average of two working hours per day and 7.7%  of monthly GDP during Ramadan.   In the United States, however, the world remains thoroughly  right-side up throughout Ramadan. American businesses carry on as usual  while fasting employees are largely responsible for taking care of  themselves and minimizing the impact on their employers. 

Formal protections for employees against a wide range of discriminatory practices are laid out in Title VII  of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Act requires businesses to provide  “reasonable accommodation” for an employee’s sincerely held religious  beliefs or practices as long as such an accommodation would not impose  more than a de minimis burden on normal operations. Of course, this begs the question: what is considered reasonable accommodation, and what is a de minimis  burden? According to employment lawyer Bruce Godfrey, the answer is  nebulous. The responsibilities of employers and employees are “decided  case by case, by precedent,” Godfrey told The Politic. A case  brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) against  appliance manufacturer Electrolux required the company to adjust their  break time schedule to allow Muslim employees to pray and break their  fast immediately after sundown throughout the month of Ramadan.  In similar cases  against meat-packing company JBS Swift, the EEOC accused the company of  violating Title VII when it fired employees who requested their evening  breaks be moved during Ramadan. Decisions have been mixed, with courts  in Nebraska and Colorado disagreeing over whether or not shifting a  break schedule would have placed an undue burden on the company. In some industries, it is clearly more difficult to accommodate  fasting workers. Jobs that are labor intensive or involve conditions of  extreme heat may be impossible to perform while fasting.  “It could be that an employee would be unable to do the work  and would have to take personal leave…[since] there is no right to  religious leave, as a matter of right, in the same way that there is for  family and medical leave,” speculated Godfrey.  However, most American businesses get by without specific,  official policies to accommodate their Muslim employees during Ramadan.  Instead, it is an unspoken policy of respect that governs many  interactions. The Politic reached out to various  businesses in Maryland about accommodations they have in place for  Ramadan. Though the restaurant chain Cava has no official policy for  Muslim employees during Ramadan, a local Montgomery County manager has  frequently reshuffled schedules and working hours to try and help out  his fasting employees.  The grocery chain Giant has no official policy, but local store  managers have given fasting employees less strenuous tasks, asking them  to help customers at the self-checkout line rather than do the heavy  lifting in the stockroom.  A local small business owner met with his Muslim designer in  the evenings instead of during the day, often urging him to hurry home  to his waiting family. Each of these people characterized their actions  to The Politic as simple acts of respect and humanity, independent of the existence of any official rules. 

For some Muslims, Ramadan does not have so powerful an impact  on their working lives. For white collar workers especially,  accommodations may be nonessential.  Tahir Qazi, CEO of an information technology consulting company called iQuasar, told The Politic  that fasting is “not a significant burden” for his line of work and  that he does not find it necessary for companies to have formal policies  in place to accommodate employees. He spoke of “mutual respect” and  “mutual accommodation,” saying these practices were sufficient to  support Muslims in the workplace. Ahsun Dasti, a representative from the Islamic Center of  Maryland who also works in information technology, had a similar  perspective. In an interview with The Politic, he stated that “there’s nothing environmentally [employers] need to provide.” Qazi offered additional justification for opposing formal accommodations for Ramadan observers. “From a religious angle, people are supposed to be working as  long as they would on any other day. The purpose of fasting is not to  accommodate your life. The purpose is to, through this process, get  closer to the Creator, get a little more discipline in your life…find  more meaning in your life…transcend from some of these material  needs…and through control of needs you get a lot more discipline, you  get a lot more compassion. I don’t think there should be any  accommodation.” Still, an online survey  of Muslims around the world revealed that only 48% of respondents in  non-OIC countries were satisfied with the level of support from their  employers during Ramadan. This compares to the 74% of respondents from  Muslim-majority countries who deemed the level of support from their  employers sufficient.  A loss in productivity is also not a foregone conclusion in the  United States. 81% of Muslims in non-OIC companies believe productivity  is not affected at all during Ramadan, and both Qazi and Dasti actually  reported higher levels of personal productivity while fasting. One reason for this heightened productivity is the spiritual  intimacy with God both say is engendered by the fast. According to The  Prophet, God says,“Every good deed is [rewarded] 10 times its like, up  to 700 times, except for fasting. It is for Me, and I will reward it.” 

 Dasti related this to his work ethic, saying, “God is the only one who  knows what you are doing, whether you’re cheating on your fast or not.  That idea kind of permeates through other aspects of your life…that also  applies to how I’m handling my work.” The physical effects of fasting are also not necessarily  deleterious to productivity. Waking earlier for the pre-dawn meal often  leads employees to come into work earlier. Qazi reported feeling more  focused and single-minded late in the day while fasting. In fact, he  pointed to the existence of “intermittent fasting” as a new trend in Silicon Valley—whose practitioners fast for more than 14 hours at a time in order to improve productivity—as evidence that this effect is not unique to religious fasters.  While Ramadan may transform life in the Muslim world, American  employers and employees tend to continue normal functions unimpeded. In  an interview with The Politic, Emmanuel Manolis, owner of a local coffee shop, said it best: here, life goes on. Such is the nature of diversity.  

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Ramadan has ended on most of the countries around the world. Eid Mubarak to all the muslims around the world, may the guidence of Allah be with them and there family members.