can my employer make me answer my cell phone when I’m on vacation?

A reader writes:

Can the company I work for tell us that we have to answer our cell phones while we are on vacation?  I asked if I would get vacation time back if I do, and the answer was no. They say because they pay the phone bill, we have to answer the calls no matter what.

I thought the purpose of a vacation is that you unplug from work.

You can read my answer to this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and often updating/expanding my answers to them).

{ 78 comments… read them below }

  1. Artemesia*

    Business types whine about regulation. Here is a perfect reason why regulations should exist. Americans accept near peonage to have a job and the only solution is ‘like it or lump it.’ Requiring sick leave and paid vacations is long overdue as labor law.

  2. Alliej0516*

    There’s always the chance that you accidentally left your cell phone at home before you left for the airport……

      1. Karowen*

        Even so – it may be worth it to forget it and buy a disposable phone when you get there. Or use the phone of the person you’re travelling with.

        1. Jennifer*

          And what if you’re traveling overseas? Does the company pay for SIM cards and coverage on extended phone networks/international roaming plans?

        2. Whoopsy*

          If I have to act that much like a spy when I’m on vacation, I hope it’s because in this scenario I actually am a spy. No reason I should have to incur that expense just to have a vacation!

  3. Elizabeth West*

    You would have to be exempt. If you’re non-exempt, then you have to be paid for the time you answer calls. If it’s over and above 40 hours for the week, that would be overtime.

    1. NJ Anon*

      Overtime is based on hours actually worked. If you are on vacation, you should get paid for the time worked but it wouldn’t be time and a half.

        1. Not an IT Guy*

          I don’t know if this due to any particular state law, but my company counts vacation time towards time worked as far as caculating overtime (sick time isn’t applied in the calculation).

          1. NJ Anon*

            You are lucky! In NJ, overtime is calculated on time worked so if you had one day off and worked the other four, you would have to work 40 hours in those four days first and then get paid overtime on anything over the 40.

          2. Koko*

            Interesting. What safeguards do they have in place to stop people from just cashing out their vacation balance this way? If I get 2 weeks’ vacation a year, I could just log PTO every week to get an extra 3 weeks’ pay over the course of the year. Or is the company essentially OK with that and is offering you the choice between PTO and a salary bump?

            1. Not an IT Guy*

              Well the majority of the people in my company are exempt, for the non-exempt folks they’re pretty strict about no overtime…either you work your 8 and go home or you just don’t put in for anything over 8.

        2. Koko*

          I don’t believe this is correct. PTO is an optional benefit not regulated by law – it’s like monopoly money in that it only has value within your own company.

          If they want to make you work and still deduct PTO for the whole week, the law has nothing to say about that. And because PTO is monopoly money, in the eyes of the law there is no difference between time worked on a normal day and time worked on a day they also made you use PTO.

          There may be state laws which require holiday pay for federally-recognized holidays, but there are no laws governing PTO. They could make you work the whole week and then deduct 2 weeks’ PTO if they wanted. It’d be a stupid management move, but perfectly legal, because PTO is monopoly money.

    2. Gandalf the Nude*

      Yes, and the employer needs to make sure they’re recording it as time worked and not PTO since that has implications for things like their Total Recordable Incident Rate.

  4. Merry and Bright*

    For some reason this reminds me of when a well known newspaper magnate sacked his assistant for turning her phone off during her brother’s wedding service.

    1. MommaTRex*

      Best reason ever for “Why did you leave your previous employer?” As soon as I hear “I turned my phone off during my brother’s wedding ceremony” I’d be thinking this candidate sounds like a good fit for my team.

  5. Long Time Reader First Time Poster*

    I would be sure to vacation overseas or in remote destinations where, oh gosh, my cell phone didn’t work.

    1. Angela*

      Cruises work amazingly well for this. Cell phones will work, but the charges are crazy and I won’t risk turning mine on.

        1. Natalie*

          With my provider you don’t even need to go that far – just get a mile off the main highway and suddenly no signal!

    2. SH*

      My former supervisor used to go backpacking across Mexico once a year and had limited cell reception. I thought that was a clever way to get around working while on vacation.

    3. Cath in Canada*

      My most relaxing vacation ever was to Cuba in 2009, when I was able to truthfully say “I didn’t see your emails. Even our five-star resort didn’t have internet” #SorryNotSorry

    4. Koko*

      I actually did this for a number of years when I worked for an employer that had poor work-life balance. I took all my vacations on cruises or camping in remote deserts and mountains.

      1. Elizabeth West*

        Hahaha, if I were in Europe I could say, “We were staying in a 400-year-old building made of stone and had no signals. The whole town was full of them. Funniest thing. Sorry!”

    5. Tau*

      My dad is in one of those high-contact jobs where he’s answering e-mails pretty constantly. I know he prefers them anyway, but the “so sorry! no reception and have no way to charge a phone!” is undoubtedly a major perk of the traditional family backpacking/cycling/canoeing/etc. holidays for him. Being truly off-grid even remotely is getting harder and harder, but he’s dedicated. :)

  6. NJ Anon*

    “What? What? I can’t hear you, bad service . . .”
    “The airline lost my luggage with my phone in it.”
    “I dropped it in the ocean.”

  7. TheBeetsMotel*

    With a few, industry-specific exceptions (the POTUS, for example!), and genuine, building-on-fire emergencies, there should be no reason why someone can’t take a real, leave-me-the-hell-alone vacation. No emails, no phones, nada. If this isn’t possible, the company is Doing It Wrong. If the entire place wouldn’t collapse if you were hit by a truck and off work for a year, it’s not going to collapse for a week.

    (Can you tell this kind of nonsense really riles me up?!)

    1. Ife*

      Right. I mean, 15, 20 years ago isn’t that the only kind of vacation there was? Before cell phones became standard, the business figured out what to do when somebody was gone.

      1. Charity*

        I agree. It’s kind of like that other letter earlier today about the company that wanted to install a monitoring device in its workers’ personal vehicles. 20-30 years ago, you *couldn’t* spy on everything everyone does all the time like that. It wasn’t even technically possible.

        But because that kind of thing is easy and cheap, businesses convince themselves that they have to do it for… Reasons. Similarly, keeping every employee on a digital leash 24/7/365 regardless of what is going on is easier (for them) than figuring out a way to deal with having a few people occasionally out of contact for a couple of days a year. It’s rarely mission-critical and unavoidable though.

      2. Lily Rowan*

        I have heard a crazy story about pre-cell phone days — the VP had her assistant figure out where the employee and his family was staying on their vacation and called and had the hotel leave a paper message in the room! But everyone knew that was extreme.

        And I think the employee’s later strategy was just to make sure no one had any idea where he was going.

        1. The Alias That Gloria Has Been Living Under, A.A., B.S.*

          Back during Y2K the company I worked for wanted to know where everyone was going to be for the holiday, contact and back up contact information. Just in case the world blew up. I could see this making sense for some positions, but not mine. And if the world had gone to hell in a handbasket, I figured I had bigger problems than work’s computers.

      3. Koko*

        This is true, but expectations have also shifted among clients and consumers. In the 1970s a client may have accepted, “Your rep is on vacation and he has the answer to this question, so we’ll have to wait for his return to move forward with this,” because that was plainly the truth and there was no other option. A VIP client today is more likely to expect that their service will be uninterrupted and expect the business to figure out how to make that happen because they know that options like email and cell phones exist.

  8. Anonymous Educator*

    In terms of whether this is smart or not (as opposed to legal), I definitely agree that it’s smart to give your employees an actual vacation on vacation.

    That said, if you’re taking a week vacation, and your boss calls you once during that time for something really important, I wouldn’t raise a big stink over that.

    The frequency of the phone calls and the actual urgency of them (it really can’t wait until I get back?) matters a lot in terms of how unreasonable the employer is being.

    1. fposte*

      Right. It’s the difference between treating a vacation as working remotely, where they can call you whenever they want, and occasionally contacting you when something significant comes up.

      1. Elizabeth West*

        Yep. I only took one call on holiday at Exjob–my coverage borked the FedEx log-in and I directed him to the correct number he needed to call to reset it. In that case, I didn’t mind helping and it literally took like 30 seconds.

    2. Artemesia*

      And if you have pesterers “do you know where the Cumberbatch file is?” Then you NeVer know. Of if a process question you refer the person to another person ‘I think Jane handles that, ask her’ or the manual ‘I think the process for ‘stuff we do every day you idiot’ is in the handbook, you need to look it up. Unless it is truly important and truly something you can solve on the phone, you need to turn pestering calls back on the people making them.

    3. Anon for this*

      And I would also add who is doing the calling.

      For about a year, I had an ongoing issue with our customer service staff calling me on my cell (our cell phone numbers are distributed through our small staff in case of weather emergencies) while I was on vacation asking questions that were not urgent. They were calling me because it was easier and faster than looking up the information or telling a customer they would have to wait until I returned. It drove me nuts. I got my boss to nip that in the bud (when my repeated requests failed to make things better), and now that group of staff must ask permission before they are permitted to call me while I’m on vacation. Amazingly all the calls stopped!

    4. PizzaSquared*

      I’ve had some SUPER stressful jobs in my past (luckily my current job is kind of boring, but not very stressful). For me, the mere specter of being called by work would be enough to negate a big chunk of the recharging and relaxation I get from a vacation. In my last stressful job, I don’t think I had a good night’s sleep or a restful vacation for two years. After I left that job, I took two weeks off and literally did not use a computer or a cell phone for the entire time. Maybe it’s just me, but the level of relaxation I can get is hugely impacted by whether or not I can completely turn off the part of my brain that thinks about work. A call from my boss in the middle of vacation would be a big negative.

      1. Tau*

        This is me as well. Having to expect calls from work would put a major dent in my ability to actually relax on vacation. When I turn off, I turn off – if I wasn’t expecting calls from work in the middle of my holiday and got one I’d probably be completely useless. All my knowledge of work would be completely offline. My boss would be lucky if I remembered who they were. :) So if they need to be able to call me, that has to not happen, which means I can’t turn off properly… not good for recovery.

        Thankfully, I am a hiking/cycling/camping/etc. holiday sort of person so my holidays tend to be pretty off-grid anyway. Anyone who expects me to change that can expect pushback. :)

      2. Cucumberzucchini*

        Agreed. If past experience has led you to expect it so you’re on edge the entire time expecting a call or emergency you can’t really enjoy your vacation.

  9. KLR*

    In my profession, it can be pretty hard to take a real, off-the-grid vacation. But that usually means responding to urgent emails within a reasonable amount of time. Not answering the phone whenever it rings!

  10. I Work In My Socks*

    “I had a wonderful time on my camping trip. It was just about perfect except I could not get a cell signal the whole time”

    Problem solved.

    1. Kristine*

      I once went on a camping trip over the 3-day weekend (didn’t even take PTO). One of my clients didn’t have that day off, so when she got my email out of office she proceeded to text, call, and leave voicemails on my cell phone nonstop. I received them all when I got back into the city that night. I was written up the next day for not responding to one of the company’s biggest clients in a timely manner.

  11. BethRA*

    Ok, now I totally want to make my direct reports to interpretive dance reports on their activities when they come back from vacation.

  12. Noah*

    Some industries (like aviation) this “answer your phone or else” attitude creates legal issues. It is not illegal for my employer to require me to answer a cell phone anytime, but if they do I am not “in rest” according to the FAA and I cannot be called upon to take a flight at a moments notice. Practically it is in my best interest to keep my employer happy and answer when they call me, but they cannot require it without running into duty/rest time issues.

    FWIW, it is similar if I work in the office all day and am then asked to take a flight at the end of the day. Technically the hours I spent in the office are not “in rest” and count towards my total duty day. I am actually supposed to go into the system each day and log admin time when I’m in the office. I rarely actually work on a flight though, they have to make it through all of the reserve crew and others in the management side before they get to me.

    1. Noah*

      Should’ve mentioned though, my employer encourages me to take vacations and use up my PTO each year. No way would they ever tell me I had to answer my phone on vacation. They might call and leave a message if something big happened (like a plane crash), and in that case I would probably cut my vacation short and run back to work.

  13. Accountant*

    In my last job, I was salaried and was expected to be available/responsive when I was not at work. And the higher up the ladder you went at that company, the more available you had to be. The flip side of that was that I could leave during the workday for random appointments, had a flexible schedule, and was able to do personal stuff at work within limits. There was a lot of blending of work and personal.

  14. OlympiasEpiriot*

    Considering I regard vacation days as part of my compensation package — not as a reward or some kind of gift from the firm — I am philosophically opposed to the legal interpretation that I can be forced to work w/o additional pay while on vacation.

    I make all my jobs pass the ‘bus test’ and have handed them off to another before I left, so no one should need to get hold of me. Plus, I frequently do remote wilderness backpacking or canoeing for my breaks. Someone would be SOL.

    And that would be a interesting discussion with some control freak if I were told I had to take a vacation that allowed me to stay connected.


  15. hbc*

    “They say because they pay the phone bill, we have to answer the calls no matter what.” That is some profoundly poor logic. I’m on call 24/7/365 because they pay for the phone? I guess if the company buys me a uniform, they can insist that I wear it on my days off.

    Maybe I’m just a contrarian, but the only reason I take/took calls on vacation, holidays, and weekends was because it was made clear that it was a completely optional favor I was doing for the company/customers. My voicemail message said I would probably not return their call until my next normal business day, and they should text if it’s an emergency. Everyone respected that. If you tell me I need to keep my ringer on while I’m hiking the Appalachian trail (figuratively or literally), I don’t trust you to properly assess what’s worth interrupting me for, and I’ll somehow accidentally run over the phone three times on my way out of the parking lot.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      If you’re outside the U.S. or using an ad blocker, Inc. may ask you to register in order to read more than one article there. That’s because they otherwise aren’t able to earn any revenue from those page views, which they’re of course dependent on (and which is what gets me paid!).

      1. A Cita*

        Oh, I am on adblocker. Will disable for the site (as long as the ads aren’t crazy intrusive auto playing pop up drive you crazy and get you into trouble at work kind of ads :)

        Thanks for the head’s up!

    2. I Work In My Socks*

      It’s their stupid adblock detection. Disable it on that one page and you won’t need to register.

  16. Gene*

    Luckily, I work for an intelligent manager, so I know if I see his name on my phone, it’s important. If I didn’t and work paid for my phone, my next vacation would be wherever the roaming and data rates were highest. I’d encourage my coworkers with similar views on this to call me for any little thing that could be justified. Every call that could possibly require some research would get extensive research before I called back to slowly give the answer I found. A 5 figure roaming bill might get someone’s attention.

    1. Anonymouss*

      You could be held responsible to pay the bill if anything was signed you would use the data reasonably

  17. sam*

    In the “be careful what you wish for files…”

    The last time I took a totally off the grid vacation, to a remote area of Mexico with no phone service (landline or cellphone), back in the days before blackberries and smartphones, I actually worked it out with my very high pressure office so that I could do this. Worked great the first year. The second year? One of the partners got kind of weirdly insistent about having a way to reach me “just in case”, so I gave him the number of the resort’s office in California, where they could get a message to me via the once-a-day delivery guy. I didn’t get any messages, but when I got home, it was to a message on my answering machine from the other partner that I worked for that I needed to call her immediately after I got home.

    You see…during my absence, all of the partners in my group had announced they were leaving the firm (which had to be kept strictly secret until a particular date in the middle of my trip), and they would like for me to come with them. There were some complications that caused the move to actually get delayed for a few weeks, but before I left, they partners literally thought that by the time I got back, they would actually all be at the new firm and I would come back to find that my job had essentially disappeared out from under me, but they couldn’t tell me any of this until the announcement.

    (Partner 2 finally convinced Partner 1 to not send a message to me while I was in Mexico, because she realized that all it would do was give me a heart attack and ruin the rest of my week, since I couldn’t actually do anything from down there.)

  18. Baxterous*


    How does this answer relate to after-hours? Just curious – if a company can require that you be available by phone while you are on vacation, can they also legally require that you be available after stated business hours?

  19. StellsBells*

    I once worked for a company who did this, and while I never had an issue answering my phone, higher-ups who had more responsibility than I did had a habit of taking their vacations in places that did not get reliable cell phone coverage.

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