5 things to know about taking time off work

Here are five things you should know about taking time off work.

1. No federal or state law requires that you be given vacation leave. Of course, most employers offer paid vacation days anyway to be competitive and attract good employees—but there’s a difference between what’s smart and customary, and what’s legal.

2. No federal law requires that you be given sick leave. A very small number of jurisdictions require paid sick leave, but the majority of Americans live in places not covered by those laws. (The Family and Medical Leave Act, or FMLA, does require some employers to give some workers up to 12 weeks off per year for serious illness or to care for an ill family member or new child, but that time off is unpaid.) Of course, as with vacation time, smart employers offer sick leave anyway in order to attract and retain good employees, but some employers don’t — and some entire industries, such as restaurant work, are known for not offering it.

3. If your office closes for the day because of weather, a natural disaster, or even just because they decided to give everyone the day off, they can deduct that time from your leave balance – even though it wasn’t your choice. Alternately, if you’re non-exempt, they can dock your pay for the day.

(What does non-exempt mean, you ask? The federal government divides all types of jobs into one of two categories: exempt and non-exempt. If your job is categorized as non-exempt, your employer must pay you overtime at time and a half your regular pay rate for all hours you work above 40 in any given week, but can also dock your pay when you don’t work at least 40 hours. If you’re exempt, your employer isn’t required to pay you overtime but also cannot dock your pay, except in limited circumstances.)

4. No law requires your office to leave you alone while you’re on vacation. Because no law requires employers to give paid vacation time at all, employers can structure the time-off they offer however they like: They can say that you can take the time as long you answer your cell phone, or as long as you check email once a day, or as long as you get that report done while you’re away.

So yes, you might be on a cruise or hiking in the mountains or just relaxing at home and officially not working, and your employer can still bother you with work calls and emails. A smart employer won’t do this because they recognize that having time to truly disconnect is important, but many others do anyway. (Of course, a smart employee might be conveniently “out of cell phone range.”) However, if you’re non-exempt, you would need to be paid for any time you spend working on your vacation.

5. Your employer can revoke its approval for your time off at any point. No law prevents your employer from changing its mind and denying your vacation time, even after it’s already been approved – even if you have nonrefundable airline tickets or even if you’re already on the beach sipping a mimosa.

I originally published this at U.S. News & World Report.

{ 61 comments… read them below }

  1. MR*

    If a company starts jerking you around about taking vacation or while you are on vacation, take that as an oft-used cue here at AAM: Is this a condition of work that you want to be under? If not, start examining other employment options.

    1. AdAgencyChick*

      Totally true. Just because it’s legal doesn’t mean it’s wise. My boss wouldn’t dream of revoking vacation time that he’s approved, but if he did, I’d have my resume updated before you can say “canceled tickets.”

      Also, re: people bothering you on vacation, I’m reminded of Dr. Phil: You teach people how to treat you. If you answer those emails and those phone calls, people will continue to call you on vacation because it’s convenient for them to do so (at least, the inconsiderate ones do). If you don’t, then those inconsiderate people miraculously find some other way to find the answer they want. And sometimes it takes so little effort on their part that they don’t even complain to you/your boss about it.

      (My boss, if complained to about my lack of responsiveness on vacation, would IMMEDIATELY say back, “Then quit calling her while she’s on vacation.” One of zillions of reasons I love my boss.)

      1. LV*

        My husband and I took our first vacation in years last month and the entire time he was stressed out over a project he had been working on prior to leaving. He was always on the lookout for wifi networks so he could check his work email on his phone, because his coworkers kept emailing him with questions.

        I told him the only way they would stop bothering him was if he stopped answering and thereby encouraging them to bother him. He had made sure to transfer all the relevant information to his teammates on the project, and the work wasn’t anything that only he could do, or so time-sensitive that it couldn’t wait until he got back. He did not feel comfortable not helping them out. Maybe someday we’ll manage to have a vacation that will actually BE a vacation…

      2. Jamie*

        If you answer those emails and those phone calls, people will continue to call you on vacation because it’s convenient for them to do so (at least, the inconsiderate ones do).

        I agree with much of this. IMO calling someone who is off should be for emergencies only (real emergencies, not point of least resistance) but in some jobs it’s just part of the deal you’ll never be able to fully unplug. That should be discussed by both parties going in and should definitely factor into compensation – but while your AR clerk should be able to go away for a week without fielding emails and calls, an IT can’t prep a week in advance and if there is no other coverage may need to be on call to arrange triage if need be.

        1. Cat*

          I think it also can depend on the nature of the vacation in the question. If I’m visiting my parents, for instance, I usually don’t mind answering the odd work e-mail; there’s usually plenty of free time when we’re puttering around the house cooking or whatnot, and it makes life easier for everyone (including me before I leave and when I come back). Conversely, I’ve been in foreign countries without a computer where I had no intention of hunting down an Internet cafe just to check in on what was going on at the office, and I let people know that.

          That’s why I think managing expectations is so critical. It’s actually not necessarily horrible of people in your office to e-mail you on vacation (at least not if you’re exempt and in certain types of professional jobs). If you don’t give them an indication that this is something that bothers you and you’re not willing to do, it’s not necessarily something they should be expected to intuit.

          1. Jamie*

            This brings up another point we’ve discussed here before – a lot of people will email you just because they are still working and don’t expect you to do anything about it until you get back. If someone is out I’ll send emails as normal but I don’t expect them to drop what they are doing and answer me…it’s in their queue for when they return. Unless there is a big URGENT in the subject line from me, it’s just business as usual.

            So Cat is absolutely right about managing expectations…and knowing what the expectations are on both ends. Because it’s entirely possible to spend your vacation responding to and resenting work email when the truth is they’d have been fine waiting until you got back and for all they know you are one of those people who enjoys working on vacation.

            Everyone needs to be on the same page.

            1. Cat*

              Yes, I have a co-worker who is constantly falling into that trap. She finishes work at 4pm; her supervisor tends to get into work later and work much later. He’ll send her e-mails at 7pm, which don’t need an immediate response, just because that’s when he’s working on it and thinking about it. She responds instantly; he then assumes she’s constantly monitoring e-mail and perhaps does start to expect quick responses; and she grows increasingly resentful. Vicious cycle which is all just better avoided entirely by communicating more clearly.

              1. Jessa*

                Exactly. You need to communicate. If the boss has no idea that she doesn’t want to deal at 7 and she has no idea the boss doesn’t EXPECT her to, then BANG trouble. When I was working a job like that it was understood that an emergency (IE needed me NOW,) was a phone call, emails were “get to it when you can but please at least look once before you go to bed at some point.” As in, at least check once a day.

            2. KellyK*

              Totally agree. If I know someone’s out and I’m emailing them with something that can wait, I frequently include “not urgent” or “for when you get back” in the subject line.

              1. tcookson*

                If I’m working outside of normal hours, or think of something when the person in question is on vacation, I’ll sometimes set the email to be delivered at 10:00 am on the next day that they will be in the office. I mostly use for people who are on vacation when I know that they get their work email on their iPhones; if I don’t think they’re checking email constantly, i’ll go ahead and send it in real time.

              2. Anonymous*

                I do that too, so they know they don’t have to respond right away. Or I write the email when I’m thinking about it, save as a draft and then make a note on my calendar to send when they are back.

          2. Elizabeth*

            My out-of-office message always includes “I will not be checking email. If this issue is critical, please notify {my boss} at {his number} and he will address it.”

            He has my cell phone number. If he can’t find the right person to deal with the problem, whether on our team or at one of our vendors, he can call me. I can tell him who to call or try to address it myself remotely.

  2. Jo March*

    Whew, this sure makes me happy about being Canadian. Even employees who don’t get actual action time must be paid out at the rate of 4% of wages (the equivalent of 2 weeks vacation).

    1. E.R*

      Here here! And yet, we will have pretty crappy work-life balance, when you think about how much better we could do.

    2. Flynn*

      Same! (Well not-US). Most of those points in that article are illegal for employers here (mandatory four weeks vacation/8% wages, plus 11 public holidays, bereavement, maternity & sick leave, etc).

      I just read stuff like that and go NOPE, nope, nope, nope, nope, stay away. Which is a shame/tends to throw me, as most AAM articles/blogs have something relevant and interesting to me.

      1. Lexy*

        It’s worth noting that, at least in my experience, not offering any vacation/sick time AT ALL is pretty rare in the U.S.

        The most common shitty thing I’ve seen is offering it and then making it so inconvenient to use that no one ever leaves.

        Even when I worked in grocery stores in high school full time people got two weeks vacation a year and part timers had pro-rated vacation.

        1. AdAgencyChick*

          “The most common shitty thing I’ve seen is offering it and then making it so inconvenient to use that no one ever leaves.”

          Yes, yes, yes. This is why I will never again work at a company that has a supposedly “unlimited” PTO policy. My last one did, but of course all PTO had to be supervisor-approved, and it was always, “Well, we’re going to be busy then…”

          Whereas, if I’d had X number of days to use, I could have pointed that out to my boss and said, “I have X days to use, and there are only Y months in the year left, so I’d really like to take these days.”

      2. Layla*

        At least calling you when you are on leave , or cancelling your planned vacation should be legal tho ?

        1. Flynn*

          I did say “Most of the points…”

          That’s one that’s obviously a case by case basis. But I think the ‘legal requirement to take leave’ aspect makes it a stronger …um, habit? custom? to NOT contact people on leave. If nothing else, calling people back in (I think it IS illegal to have them be ‘on call’ during official leave, as opposed to when they just aren’t scheduled) just means that they still have to take that leave some other time, and denying them leave gets into a sticky situation if it happens regularly.

          But obviously that’s going to vary hugely depending on the level of contact, the people involved and whether the person on leave manages to stay away themselves :D

  3. Anonymous*

    While none of this information is new to me, it is a bit depressing to see it all in one place.

  4. Leslie*

    Depresses me too. I am glad I have never worked somewhere that didn’t offer vacation time and sick time.

  5. Lisa*

    If you’re non-exempt, you would need to be paid for any time you spend working on your vacation.

    I would expect that bringing this up to a big company let alone a small one, would make you the first one to go when layoffs happen. Unless you are super valuable, I don’t see mentioning the law being in your favor long-term.

    1. Jamie*

      Depends on the company. I’m ridiculous when it comes to this stuff – non-exempt people get paid when they work…period.

      That’s why I won’t approve remote email access for non-exempt people without an exceptional business reason for it because it’s complicated tracking those little time increments spent checking and responding to email…and it must be checked and must be paid.

      I have been known to reprimand people for doing “one last thing” after they’ve clocked out. Off the clock you don’t answer a phone, load a box, send an email ….clock back in for that.

      1. RLS*

        I don’t think it’s ridiculous at all! I think you are an awesome boss for that :)

        There are many annoying/horrible/unethical things my workplace does but one thing I have got to hand to them is that they do not permit anyone to work off the clock, for any reason. We have many non-exempt hourly employees; mostly high schoolers and early college students, with pretty specific shift-change times. If we are giving them any documented feedback (discipline or positive), having them sign anything, pick up their check, taking their picture for “____ of the Week!”…anything: they must be punched in. It’s one thing that I do like about this place…very respectful of paid time and break times, etc. Not just legal; but it’s sacred here, haha.

        1. Jamie*

          Sacred is the word I always use for payroll and time issues.

          Just like I’ve always believed that lunch isn’t the most important part of a lunch break – the break is. So if I HAVE to schedule a meeting during their usual lunch or one runs long (never my fault – I hate meeting creep) over lunch or break even though we provide food I make sure they get their time.

          Even if you’re eating, it’s still work if your time isn’t your own. No recharging will happen listening to me yammer about policy.

          Funny thing, once one manager does this the others always follow suit – it just becomes part of the deal. Managers need to respect everyone’s time – they are employees but also people and people sometimes need their lunch/break to make some phone calls, run an errand, or just chill and think about cupcakes with rainbow sprinkles.

  6. Lily in NYC*

    We have the most incredible perk here – we are allowed to sell back up to 15 days of vacation over the winter holidays (and we get a lot of vacation because our salaries aren’t great). It is probably my favorite thing about this job! I’ve been feeling ready to move on but our vacation and benefits here are so generous that it’s become a golden handcuffs situation. I get close to six weeks off every year and it’s a hard thing to give up because they are great about letting us actually use the time we’ve accrued.

    1. Cheryl*

      A lot of nonprofits in New York are generous with the vacation time because they can’t afford to compensate you with salary. I don’t know if you work in the nonprofit field or not, but that was my experience. You might not get the salary you want, but you can definitely get the time you want.

  7. ChristineSW*

    “3. If your office closes for the day because of weather, a natural disaster or even just because your employers decided to give everyone the day off, they can deduct that time from your leave balance…”

    Stupid question: When you say “leave balance”, do you mean vacation time/PTO?

      1. Ursula*

        What if an exempt employee has no leave balance remaining and the office closes? Must the company pay the employee at his/her regular weekly salary? If the office is closed for a week, would the company be off the hook for the salary? (This is all assuming that no work is done remotely while the office is closed.)

        1. KellyK*

          I would think the company would be required to pay, but they could deduct it from future leave balance. (There’s also nothing to stop them from punishing or firing you for using too much leave in that scenario.)

          The one spot where it might get sticky is if you have to pay back negative leave if you leave the job before you earn it back. I don’t think it’d be legal for them to deduct that amount from your check, since they would then be docking a salaried employee’s pay based on hours worked.

      2. Anonymously Anonymous*

        I have a problem with using my sick time for unexpected closures. When I first started my current job, I was told I could use my sick time to cover part of the two weeks we are closed. I have never done this because it doesn’t make sense to me.
        Using PTO and Vacation time( which I don’t get) but I do make up the day later in the year (for unexpected closures); I understand. My sick time I feel should be for call in days when I’m sick or when I have Dr appt, not for an unexpected closure.

        1. Anonymously Anonymous*

          And I did pretty good managing my sick time because I had 5 hours left. I guess I could have used those 5 hours for one of those darn snow days but…oh well. I still rather be in control of how I use my sick time…

  8. Lar*

    Failure to manage PTO and #3 cause me a great deal of headaches. My employer has a very generous PTO accrual policy. However, I manage several that get upset when they have to go on leave without pay when we have to close during a hurricane or similar disaster (I live in the south so you know we are shutting down if we see a snowflake!) and they have already taken all of their PTO.

    1. AdAgencyChick*

      My pet peeve as a manager: People who sit on their PTO days all year, and then want to take pretty much the entire month of December off once they realize they’re about to lose their days (we can carry over no more than 5 days/year).

      I am a firm believer in the importance of R&R but that is the one thing that will make me say no to your PTO request! (Note: we don’t dock PTO for weather, so the only thing you need to save days for is sick time/emergencies…but we have a generous enough PTO policy that this shouldn’t stop anyone from planning a significant amount of vacation!)

      1. Lar*

        Luckily, I don’t have that problem. We can bank unused PTO for future use in cases of catastophic illness as well as donate it others. The past few years I have donated more leave than I have taken.

      2. Flynn*

        We have sort of an inverted problem! Because we have mandatory leave, and everyone in my immediate workplace has been there so long, we end up at the end of the year with half the staff ordered to go take a month or more off (or promise we’re going to take a long holiday later), just so the company won’t be in the red for time owed. My manager’s the worst (which is great, cause then she doesn’t hassle people so much as higher ups hassle her to hassle us) :D

        1. Jamie*

          This is why a lot of companies will pay out unused time at the end of the year. Tons of accumulated PTO, if allowed to roll over for years, is a crushing liability to carry on the books.

      3. Judy*

        I keep enough days to handle Dec 26-31, plus a few days (maybe 4) to handle emergencies. That gives me some time to do shopping while the kids are still in school, if no one gets sick. (I have to use my vacation days for kids illness, my sick days are only for me, per policy.) The rest of the days I use earlier in the year to vacation as a family. We have use or loose on Dec 31. The previous company’s use or loose date was hire date, so not everyone had the same date to use by, which meant there wasn’t such a culture of no one here the last 2 weeks of December.

        1. AdAgencyChick*

          Forfeit date = hire date sounds AWESOME to me as a manager. I suppose it might create a different set of headaches for HR…but man, it does sound great to have a situation where everyone isn’t scrambling to use days in December.

          1. Jamie*

            I had this once where the vacay accrural year ended on anniversary date. Then they promoted me to corporate where the policy was different – use by Dec. 31 for everyone. Since I moved into the new job the first week in December I couldn’t possibly take it so they grudgingly cashed me out.

            And they did so at my old pay rate because that’s when it was accrued, and while that’s totally legal I thought it was very crappy and nickle and dimey of them since I’d have take the days before changing positions if they’d told me the policy was different at corporate.

            Still makes me scowly to think about it.

          2. RLS*

            Our PTO is our hire date as well. It’s nice. That means I know I *have* to go to my state fair next month paid! :)

    2. tcookson*

      I’ve seen people who just live month-to-month on their leave balance. New employees around here accrue leave at 8 hours/month vacation plus 8 hours/month sick, and we had this receptionist a while back who always managed to use hers up (vacation AND sick leave) every single month. If she got mad because she wasn’t getting her way, she would go home at lunch that day, call in sick the next day, and not come back until the day after that. Then she got sick and legitimately needed the time off for surgery, so she had to take the time off unpaid.

      I don’t judge anybody for taking a “mental health day” when they have the leave accrued, but have some sense about it, for pete’s sake!

      1. Anonymous*

        It can depend on the situation. When I worked in a call center, I was almost always running my accrued sick time down with half-days and leave-earlys, because I found the work extremely stressful, and if I wasn’t feeling well it was very difficult to keep the needed attitude. I didn’t 100% trust myself not to get snappish with a customer on the line if I had a bad headache or felt sick, so I would play it safe and go home, rather than run the risk of saying something really unacceptable and getting disciplined (or worst-case scenario fired) because of it.

  9. happy cat*

    I think it might be different here in Canada…? I was under the impression we had 2 weeks vacation time each year. Or you can get paid out for the time if you don’t take said vacation. Where my husband works they made him work the full year before allowing him the time off, which is IMHO extreme.

    1. Zahra*

      No, that’s normal. During the first year, you accrue one day/month up to 10 days (2 weeks). Usually, you use vacation days accrued during the previous year although some employers will let you use the days accrued for the current year.

  10. Steve G*

    #3 – what meeting was scheduled a month in advance? Usually meetings are only scheduled a week or 2 in advance. If this event had a month notice, I’m thinking it was more of a conference or trade group, which would make the participation of any one person much less important. OP – can you provide insight as to what this event was, and why it was so important?

    1. Jamie*

      ISO Management Review meetings and board meetings are often scheduled months in advance, just to name two from my experience.

      When meetings have mandatory attendance for people who can be tough to schedule it’s helpful to have firm dates locked in early and other things planned around that.

  11. jesicka309*

    Ugh leave. I was just asked for the fourth time in 2 years to take leave. It makes me SO frustrated.
    Yes, I have a lot of leave accrued – in my first year I used maybe 5 days out of 20? Since then I’ve used almost my full 20 a year but I still have that original accrual. I’ve taken trips to Europe, Bali, skiing, as well as maybe 10 or more days for exams and study – I still have 15 days accrued. I have a trip booked in November, and they want me to take more.
    The problem is that they forget all the times they’ve denied me leave. In January I wanted to go to Bali and Japan – I was only able to get a week off because everyone else had booked up leave, and my partner went to Japan and I met him in Bali. :( I wanted time off in April over Easter that was denied because they let someone else have 6 weeks off for their wedding (paid!!!). I was denied for a few other holidays because others had leave.
    So they honestly want me to use up my leave, but not while anyone else is on leave (which, with 11 people with 4 weeks each a year, is virtually impossible). Majorly frustrating.

  12. AG*

    So salaried/exempt employees can’t have their pay docked, but they can reduce your salary for a week and then re-raise it after? There’s nothing stopping them from unilaterally changing your salary at any time for any reason right?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Nah, they couldn’t really do that. It would be obvious that they were doing it to get around the exempt/non-exempt laws and they’d likely to be found to be in violation.

  13. Elle-em-en-oh-pee*

    So I have a question…

    Once upon a time, not so long ago, I started a job with a company known for its generous benefits package. My contract was very explicit about vacation/PTO policy and stated: upon departure from the company’s employ, former employee will receive a lump sum payment of remaining PTO balance. This is the contract I signed and presumed I would be operating under.

    I was salaried and exempt and for reasons that are unimportant here I wound up resigning- 4 days from my 6 month mark. The day my resignation became effective, I printed out the current HR policy about PTO payout, which stated exactly what my contract said – remaining PTO will be paid out upon leaving the company, printed with the date I left.

    When I never received a check for the balance, I emailed HR who told me policy was an employee had to work for 6 months before receiving their remaining PTO. This was NOT what my contract said, nor published policy, nor made available to employees in any way.

    The document that I was mailed by HR stating this time stipulation, was not published until 6 days after I had resigned, despite this discrepency, HR claimed it had been in effect for several years.

    To me it felt as if they had refused to honor their own written contract, (the one we both agreed to, and I was very upset) however I could not afford an attorney, and not knowing if I had a case or even what agency to inquire with at the time, I dropped the subject since the company made it clear they weren’t going to pay unless they were legally bound to do so.

    Everything I have read says there is no law about what companies can and cannot do with vacation time; so are they justified in retroactively applying a policy after I resigned to deny me my PTO payout? Can they legally reneg on a written contract by verbally telling me the policy has been in effect for years, but not publishing this policy for employee viewing until after I resigned?

    I had always been under the impression that PTO was part of my salary package, and as such I considered it wages owed. At the same time however, I am told companies are free to administer PTO as they please, which would make it so I am just upset and well, too bad, so sad…

    Anyway, I have never asked any of this, because I figured I have run out of time to do anything about it, but now that the subject has come up, are there any laws that state a company must abide their own contract or published policies?

    I really don’t know anymore, and the whole experience just makes me suspicious and upset when anyone (HR Manager employee) tries to sell me on the great benefits their company offers employees… because I WANT TO BELIEVE! But I am pretty sure I would just be stupid if I did.

    Please any thoughts?

    Thank you all for your time.

      1. Jamie*

        In some cases they’d be required to honor the written terms in the handbook, wouldn’t they?

        I know some handbooks are casual and ad hoc – but I’ve worked in places where you sign that you’ve read and the policies in book are binding and then when changes or addendums are issued we have to explain the changes or additions and have them resign again.

        The wording is something about being the policies under which the company operates, so I always assumed that was legally binding as far as vacation policies and stuff. Not 100% sure, though.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Yes! Typically they’re binding. The different, though, is that the company can change the policies in the handbook (as long as they do it in writing and it’s not retroactive) at any time, whereas they can’t change a contract without the other person’s agreement.

        2. Elle-em-en-oh-pee*

          Thank you both, for your (respective) replies. I am both gladened and saddened at this; glad that I may have been right, sad I didn’t any fight left in me to have the company make good on their promise, especially since what little was left of my pride told me I shouldn’t have to.

          Because their policies weren’t written ad hoc (this company had a team of lawyers overseeing any and all policy changes), I figured they’d have their ducks lined up before attempting such a blatent play. I am ashamed I was so easily buffaloed into leaving part of my salary on the table as a parting gift.

          But, on the bright side, to quote Billy Idol: “It’s a nice day to start again.”

          Que será, será.
          And thanks again.

          1. Jamie*

            I do think it sucks for you, because you’re right you shouldn’t have had to fight for this.

            Sometimes, though, it’s just better to cut your losses because the legal costs to fight would outweigh what you’re owed…but as someone who also wants to fight on principle I total get why it grates.

  14. Cassie*

    Just curious – what usually happens if an employee wants to take say 11 days off but the policy is only 10 consecutive work days or less for a vacation? Particularly if the non-refundable tickets (for international travel) have already been purchased…

    I know it’ll depend on the organization and management (and obviously the employee shouldn’t have bought the tickets before getting the vacation approved), but would letting the employee take the 2 days off without pay be a possibility? Another option I heard is letting the employee switch to an alternate work schedule (like 4-40 or 9-80) so the actual # of days is less, but the hours off is roughly the same.

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