Valentine’s Day is a tricky day in the office. It’s a day that is about celebrating love when the office is often expressly not. This then makes the question “how can I safely celebrate” more important. Thankfully, this situation has laws that can help navigate this time.
Since February 14th falls on a weekday, most people may want to plan something with a significant other. It is important to understand that there is no protected vacation leave or PTO under Texas law for at-will employees. It would be helpful to peek at the employee handbook to see what the proper procedure is for requesting time off and follow the guidelines. However, there is protected leave that is available under certain circumstances. An example would be if you have surgery scheduled for February 13th and you request FMLA leave, unpaid leave for family or medical reasons, to recover. The coincidence would be just that because your protected leave to recover would not be interrupted by a holiday.
Medical leave that coincides with Valentine’s Day is not the only law that may apply for the day. Another law that would probably be the most applicable to Valentine’s Day is Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This law specifically focuses on prohibiting discrimination in the workplace and protects employees from retaliation if they oppose or report discrimination. In particular, Title VII prohibits sexual harassment or creating a hostile work environment through discriminatory actions. During Valentine’s Day, regular office policies still apply, so if there are guidelines or prohibitions for workplace celebrations, it would be helpful to know ahead of time if you’d like to participate or not participate in events. On top of regular office policies regarding holiday celebrations, if a coworker is actively making you uncomfortable with their Valentine’s celebrations, the law provides protection from retaliation for employees who speak up in these instances. For example, if someone is discussing their love life in-depth and the conversation is unwelcome, then this could be an instance where Title VII would encourage you to report the situation following the applicable office guidelines.
Similarly, while in school it was typical to hand out Valentines to all the classmates, in the office space some of the same rules apply. Exclusionary actions from a coworker or being treated differently during a Valentine’s Day celebration in the context of a history of this behavior towards you can signal a hostile work environment. Hostile work environments created by this type of behavior are prohibited under Title VII. If someone is using Valentine’s Day to make overtures that make you uncomfortable, then it is something that can be discussed with your supervisor. A remedy could look like approaching your supervisor or human resources representative and reporting that some of the celebrations are making you uncomfortable. Speaking up about a coworker who is making you uncomfortable, even if it is a holiday, is protected activity under Title VII, which prohibits sexual harassment in the workplace.
Title VII also prohibits religious discrimination. If the office has Valentine’s decorations, but it is something you do not wish to participate in due to a sincerely held religious belief, then Title VII protects your right to ask for a religious accommodation. For example, an accommodation could be for your office space to remain free of decorations. This is something that could either be brought to the attention of your supervisor or Human Resources, and raising the need for a religious accommodation is protected under the law so your employer is prohibited from retaliating against you for requesting it.
Finally, focusing on Texas law specifically, the day of love has limits to expression in the office. Under Texas law, employers with at least one or more employees will be subject to the Texas Labor Code’s prohibition on sexual harassment. Typically, under federal law the minimum is 15 employees to come under coverage for Title VII, but the Texas Labor Code is more far-reaching. If you feel like Valentine’s Day was not lovely for you and you’d like to discuss these issues more with an employment attorney, then I would encourage you to contact us to talk about your situation.