You’ve earned two weeks of vacation, and wow, did you work for it. You put in for your two weeks, got it approved, and planned your trip. You have non-refundable tickets to fly to your dream all-inclusive resort. A week before you leave, you mention that Bob will be covering for you while you’re gone. Your boss says, “Oh, you were serious about taking vacation?” You nod, meekly. You ask a coworker what she thinks he meant. You find out that the last five people who went on vacation were fired.
Should you be worried? The short answer is: yes. There is no U.S. law requiring an employer give you any paid or unpaid vacation. I hear stories all the time of people fired a few days or a week into a scheduled vacation, or the day they get back. Even worse, they’re fired the day before they’re scheduled to leave. They were counting on the vacation pay to cover the cost of the trip. Now they’re left in the lurch.
Vacations are good for you and good for employers. They keep morale higher, prevent employee burnout, reduce stress, and keep you healthier. The good news is that most employers won’t fire you for taking your vacation. Yet a recent survey found that one out of four of Americans are taking no vacation this summer.
The fear of being fired for taking vacation is justified. If you live anywhere but Montana, you’re probably an at-will employee. That means you can be fired for any reason or no reason at all. Do you have any rights? Yes, but not many.
Here are some circumstances where it would be illegal to fire you for taking a vacation:
Family and Medical Leave: If you have scheduled surgery, are pregnant with a due date, or have an immediate family member who has scheduled medical care, you might be protected. If you put in for FMLA leave, your employer must let you use your paid sick and vacation time first before they put you on unpaid leave. If you’re fired because you used your vacation for FMLA leave, you may be protected.
Contract: If your employment contract says you’re entitled to vacation, then firing you for taking it might be breach of contract.
Employee Welfare Plan: If the employer has an established vacation policy for all employees, then it might be an “employee welfare benefit plan” that is covered under ERISA. That means it might be illegal to retaliate against you for exercising your right to take your vacation benefit.
Union contract: If your union’s collective bargaining agreement provides for your vacation benefits, you might be able to grieve any termination that violates your union contract. If you don't have a union at work, look into forming one if you are concerned about your working conditions.
Discrimination: The company can’t discriminate based on race, age, sex, religion, color, national origin, disability, genetic information, or age in granting and denying vacations. Some states have other protected categories such as sexual orientation, marital status, and domestic violence victims. They can favor your boss’s vacation over yours though. If the boss’s vacation conflicts with yours, even if yours was preapproved, they can renege on the approval.
Other than these limited rights, you can absolutely be fired for taking your vacation or to prevent you from getting a paid vacation. Here’s some more information you need to know about your rights while taking vacation:
Wrongdoing discovered: If your employer discovers wrongdoing or even poor performance while you’re on vacation, even if you have a protected right to take it, they can fire you for the wrongdoing they discover. That means if you embezzled and they find out because someone covered for you while you were out, or if you didn’t do a key assignment before you left, then you might not have a job to come back to.
Layoff: Even if you have protected vacation rights, such as under a union or employment contract, if there is a genuine layoff at your company, they can probably include you in the layoff.
Last minute demand to cancel: Sometimes the boss will demand you cancel your plans at the last minute. Maybe an emergency comes up, or she just decides she can’t live without you. If you refuse and take your vacation anyhow, you can be fired for insubordination or job abandonment.
Use it or lose it: If your employer has a “use it or lose it” vacation policy, you probably have no right to be paid for your vacation when you’re fired. However, if your employer lets people accrue their benefits and get paid out when they leave, you are probably entitled to be paid your vacation time when you leave. It’s an earned benefit. Some states protect their citizens by barring use-it-or-lose-it vacation policies. Here are some states that look out for their voters:
- California: Under Cal. Labor Code §227.3, all accrued vacation must be paid when employment ends. California also prohibits policies that make employees take vacation by a certain date or lose it. In one California case, an illegal policy cost the employer millions.
- Illinois: Under 820 ILCS 115/5; 56 Ill. Adm. Code 300.520, employers have to pay out accrued vacation pay at the end of employment unless a collective bargaining agreement with a union provides otherwise. While they can have a policy saying employees have to use vacation time by a certain date or lose it, employers must permit employees a reasonable opportunity to take those vacation days before they're gone. 56 Ill. Adm. Code 300.520(e).
- Indiana: While employers can have a use-it-or-lose-it policy in Indiana, employers have to pay out accrued vacation if their vacation policy is silent on the issue. See Indiana Heart Associates, P.C. v. Bahamonde, 714 N.E.2d 309 (Ind. App. 1999); Die &Mold, Inc. v. Western, 448 N.E.2d 44 (Ind. App. 1983).
- Louisiana: Vacation pay is earned wages, so policies requiring the forfeiture of earned vacation pay are not enforceable. Beard v. Summit Institute, 707 So.2d 1233 (La. 1998). However, they may implement use-it-or-lose-it policies saying employees must use by a certain date or lose the vacation.
- Maryland: Like Indiana and Louisiana, while employers can implement policies, if the policy is silent on the issue vacation must be paid out at the end of employment.
- Massachusetts: Employers have to pay out accrued vacation pay at the end of employment. While they can have a policy saying employees have to use vacation time by a certain date or lose it, employers must permit employees a reasonable opportunity to take those vacation days before they're gone. MA Atty. Gen. Advisory 99/1.
- Michigan: Similar to Indiana, Louisiana and Maryland, while employers can implement policies, if the policy is silent on the issue vacation must be paid out at the end of employment.
- Montana: In Montana, an employer can't take away earned vacation pay or fail to pay it out for any reason. MT Dept. of Labor and Industry FAQ; See Langager v. Crazy Creek Products, Inc., 287 Mont. 445; 954 P.2d 1169 (Mt. Sup. Ct. 1998).
- Nebraska: Nebraska law prohibits employers from failing to pay out earned vacation or from policies saying employees must use vacation by a certain date or lose it. See Neb. Rev. Stat. § 48-1229(4); Roseland v. Strategic Staff Management, Inc., 272 Neb. 434, 722 N.W.2d 499 (Neb. Sup. Ct. 2006); Neb. Dept. of Labor FAQ.
- New York: If the policy is silent on the issue vacation must be paid out at the end of employment.
- North Carolina: If the policy is silent on the issue, vacation must be paid out at the end of employment. N.C. Gen. Stat. § 95-25.12.
- North Dakota: Employers can't require an employee to forfeit accrued or earned vacation leave upon separation from employment, regardless of the reason. ND Admin. Code § 46-02-07-02(12). However, they can implement policies saying vacation must be used by a certain date or be lost.
- Ohio: While use-it-or-lose-it policies are allowed, vacation must be paid out at the end of employment if the policy is silent on the matter. See Fridrich v. Seuffert Construction Co., 2006 Ohio 1076 (OH App. 2006).
- Oregon: Oregon is another state that allows such policies but requires employers to pay out vacation if the policy is silent on the issue.
- Rhode Island: Employers must pay employees who have completed at least one year of service for any vacation pay accrued in accordance with company policy or contract on the next regular payday for the employee when they leave. RI Stat. § 28-14-4(b).
- West Virginia: If the policy is silent on the matter, vacation has to be paid out at the end of employment. See Meadows v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 207 W. Va. 203, 530 S.E.2d 676 (WV Sup. Ct. 1999). Otherwise, employers are allowed to implement such policies.
- Wyoming: In Wyoming, an employer cannot require an employee to forfeit accrued or earned vacation on leaving. WY Dept. of Employment FAQs.
So take that trip to South America or your dream cruise. Enjoy! You may have more free time than you expected when you get back. Maybe it's time we join the rest of the civilized world and require some paid leave for workers. Something to think about when you're voting in 2020.
And now, back to my vacation, which I am definitely taking as much of as I can.