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You can be legally fired in most states for refusing to work Thanksgiving Day

·3-min read
Customers navigate through the aisles during the Black Friday sales event on Thanksgiving Day at Target in Chicago, Illinois, U.S. November 23, 2017. REUTERS/Kamil Krzaczynski
Customers navigate through the aisles during the Black Friday sales event on Thanksgiving Day at Target in Chicago, Illinois, U.S. November 23, 2017. REUTERS/Kamil Krzaczynski

Big-box retailers like Target, Best Buy, and Walmart closed their brick-and-mortar doors for Thanksgiving Day, giving their employees a day off before the Black Friday rush. However, in most parts of the U.S. it would be legal for these retailers to mandate employees clock in during this holiday, experts say.

Thanksgiving, along with 11 other days each year, is an official federal holiday in the U.S., but the designation does little to guarantee time off or extra pay for private sector workers.

In most cases, employers dictate recognized holidays, Timothy Ford, an employment and commercial litigation partner in the law firm Einhorn, Barbarito, Frost & Botwinick, tells Yahoo Finance. 

“Employers are free to select the holidays it seeks to recognize, if any at all,” Ford says of private firms.

Exceptions to the rule

Two states deviate from that general rule: Massachusetts and Rhode Island require private companies to give workers paid time off for national holidays, according to Erin McLaughlin, a labor & employment attorney with Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney.

Local ordinances can also impact holiday work and pay rules, McLaughlin adds, as can collective bargaining agreements that govern rules for union workers. 

However, regardless of whether an employer recognizes a holiday, Fisher Phillips partner Emily Litzinger explains that under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act they still must consider requests for time off from workers who want the day off for a religious holiday.

Employers must engage in what’s called an “interactive process” to decide if they can accommodate a holiday request, without causing the business an undue hardship, Litzinger says. She adds that state laws often require similar accommodations. For holidays without any religious significance, such as Thanksgiving or July Fourth, Litzinger explains, “an employer can terminate an employee if he or she refuses to work when assigned.”

For government workers, most are entitled to receive paid holiday time off, or alternatively, premium holiday compensation. “They’re in their own set of rules,” McLaughlin, says of federal and state workers.

For all U.S. workers, the shift to remote work has complicated which state and local holiday laws apply, McLaughlin says. Federal law still applies, but generally, which state and local laws apply depend on where the employee does their job.

“So for employers who have employees in jurisdictions who are permanently working from home, the employer needs to be mindful of the rules that apply to employees in that jurisdiction,” she explains.

In reality, workers have the upper hand

In light of the tight job market, however, it's probably not in most employers' interest to fire people for wanting to spend a holiday relaxing instead of working. In September, a record 4.4 million Americans quit their jobs, following a record-breaking 4.3 million who resigned in August.

To attract and retain workers, employers are upping the ante with added perks; guaranteed time off on holidays or extra pay for working those days could be an additional benefit. For its part, Walmart closed its stores on Thanksgiving for the first time last year, calling the day off a "thank you" to its associates for their hard work during the COVID-19 pandemic. Target is now making Thanksgiving a permanent day off.

American Airlines is offering a substantial boost in pay for certain employees who work during peak holiday travel times, this year, with increases ranging from 150% to 300% of regular pay. An incentive from Southwest Airlines offers workers free flights in exchange for their holiday labor.

Alexis Keenan is a legal reporter for Yahoo Finance. Follow Alexis on Twitter @alexiskweed.

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