The laws of almost every state require employers to give employees time off to cast a ballot or show up for jury duty. These laws vary widely in the details, however. Some require employers to provide paid leave, while others do not; some allow employers to require employees to show some proof that they voted or were called for jury service; and some actually impose criminal penalties on employers who fire or otherwise penalize an employee for taking time off work for these civic obligations.
Almost every state prohibits employers from disciplining or firing an employee who takes time off work to vote. Some state laws require employers to give their employees a specific amount of time off to cast their ballots; in most of these states, the time an employee takes off must be paid.
Often, how much time off you have to provide depends on the employee's schedule. For example, if an employee has two or three consecutive hours off while the polls are open or otherwise has enough time to vote before or after work, you may not have to let the employee take leave to vote during work hours.
The obligations of these laws do not fall entirely on employers, however. In some states, employees who want to take advantage of these laws must meet certain requirements, like proving that they actually cast ballots or giving their employers notice, in advance, that they intend to take time off work to vote. To find out the rules in your state, contact your state labor department.
Even if your state doesn't require you to give time off for voting, you might still have to provide time off to vote if you have promised to do so in your employee handbook or other personnel policies. For help putting together or revising your employee handbook, including a sample policy on voting leave, see Create Your Own Employee Handbook, by Lisa Guerin and Amy DelPo (Nolo). It also provides information on each state's voting laws.
Some employers doggedly resist giving employees time off for jury duty -- and apply subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) pressure on them to avoid serving. This can be a big legal mistake, however. Most states prohibit employers from firing or disciplining employees called for jury service. Some states go farther and prohibit employers from trying to discourage or intimidate employees from serving on a jury.
Although you have to provide time off for jury duty, you probably don't have to pay for it. Unless your employee handbook or other personnel policies state otherwise, employers in most states don't have to provide paid time off work to employees responding to a summons or serving on a jury. However, a handful of states do require employers to provide at least some pay for this time off. Special rules apply to exempt employees who are paid on a salary basis and not entitled to overtime pay. Under federal law, employers cannot make deductions from an exempt employee's salary for absences due to jury service, unless the employee does no work for the entire workweek. Practically speaking, this means that you'll probably have to pay your exempt employees for time spent responding to a jury summons, unless they are absent for the entire workweek and don't perform any work from home or from the courthouse.
Some states allow employers to require employees to provide proof that they were called for jury duty before they take any time off work. And some states give employees additional rights -- for example, to use accrued paid leave for the time they spend on jury duty, or to take time off of night shift work, even though it doesn't directly conflict with jury service. For information on your state's requirements, contact your state labor department. You can find a summary of each state's law on time off for jury service, and a sample policy regarding leave to serve on a jury, in Create Your Own Employee Handbook, by Lisa Guerin and Amy DelPo (Nolo).