everything you need to know about taking vacation time from work

Millions of Americans are preparing to take time off from work for the holidays this month or next – and many of them are doing it without really knowing what employers legally can and can’t do when it comes to vacation time.

Can your manager refuse to approve your time off? Do you have to be paid if your office shuts down for the holidays? What if your boss keeps contacting you with work questions while you’re on vacation? Here are answers to all these questions and more.

Does your manager have to approve your time off?

Nope! Your manager is not required to agree to the specific days you request off. That said, good managers will try to accommodate you if at all possible, as long as you have the time saved up and the days you’re requesting won’t cause issues with coverage. But it’s good to be aware that your manager doesn’t have to say yes, so that you can get your requests in early.

What if your manager never agrees to approve time off?

If your manager keeps turning down your requests for time off and you don’t seem to ever be able to get away, try pointing out that your vacation time is part of your compensation and that you need to be able to use it. Say something like this: “I haven’t been able to take time off in more than a year. That’s not sustainable, and it’s important to me to be able to use the benefits the company provides as part of compensation. Can we figure out how to arrange things so that I’m able to use my time off and get away to recharge?”

Can your office contact you while you’re on vacation?

Annoying as it may be, your office can indeed contact you with work questions while you’re on vacation. If you’re considered a “non-exempt” employee (you’ll know you’re non-exempt if you’re eligible for overtime pay) and you’re taking unpaid vacation time, they have to pay you for any time they take up while you’re away. If you’re taking paid vacation time, they don’t have to pay you extra to make up for the time they took up.

That said, reasonable offices will let you warn people in advance that you’ll be inaccessible while you’re away. If you work in a less reasonable office, you can always mention that you’ll be in a destination with poor cell phone coverage.

Can your employer have a use-it-or-lose-it policy for vacation time?

In most states, it’s legal for employers to require you to use your vacation time by a certain date, usually the end of the year, or lose it altogether.  However, California, Colorado, Nebraska, and Montana  prohibit use-it-or-lose it policies. Employers in those states can cap how much vacation time employees are able to accrue (for example, saying that once you accrue 100 hours, you won’t continue to accrue until you use some of it up), but once the time is accrued it can’t be taken away.

If your company closes for the holidays, must you be paid for those days?

The answer to this depends on whether you’re exempt or non-exempt, and how long your company closes for. If you’re non-exempt, you’re required to earn overtime pay when you work more than 40 hours in a week, but your employer can dock your pay when you work fewer hours. That means that if you’re non-exempt and your company closes for a holiday, it’s not required to pay you.

If you’re exempt (not required to receive overtime pay), your company cannot dock your pay for office closings unless the closing lasts a full week or longer. However, you can be required to deduct the time from your leave balance, even though it wasn’t your choice not to work those days.

Does your employer have to pay out the value of your remaining vacation time when you leave your job?

This depends 100% on what state you live in. Some states, including California, require your employer to pay you the value of any remaining vacation time when you leave, because they consider vacation time part of your wages. Other states leave it up to individual employers to decide. It pays to know your state law!

{ 45 comments… read them below }

      1. milton

        my husband i got our vacation approved when he was hired by his district manager and by his manager. We spent over 2000 dollars in tickets etc. Two weeks from now we leave. During last couple months the District Manager and his manager have left the company. The new District manager just told him that if he takes the vacation he will be fired. I know this is ethically wrong. We live in Texas is this legal?

  1. Van Helsing Job Hunter

    What always grinds my gears is how some managers get really passive aggressive about vacation. You can follow all the HR manuals in the world, get your leave approved verbally, written in triplicate AND in the company intranet… then three weeks before you fly off to the beaches of Bali, your bosses will get really snippy that you are not able to help on the crucial stages of the deadline, and wondering out loud if you can cancel your bookings.

    1. Solidus Pilcrow

      I think we need a manager’s/employer’s guide to not being a jerk about PTO.

      One for the employer side: if you decide to change the PTO allotment, make sure employees that have been with the company X amount of time get exceptions. Former employer used to give 2 weeks PTO for 1-5 years service, then bumped up the accrual to 3 weeks for 5+ years of service. A co-worker planned on 3 weeks in Hawaii for a delayed honeymoon when he was at 4.75 years (the honeymoon would take place after he reached 5 years). About a month before his honeymoon, the company changed the policy to needing 10 years service to reach 3 weeks PTO, no exceptions. He took his honeymoon anyway, then quit a couple months later. We lost a lot of good people over that.

      1. KellyK

        Any time you change a rule like that, you should absolutely make exceptions for people who made plans in good faith based on what you promised them previously.

      2. Temperance

        Wow. My last company reduced PTO (after they cut raises and eliminated bonuses), but they at least grandfathered in anyone who had been hired under the previous guidelines.

        Also, frankly … 3 weeks isn’t even that generous!

        1. Sans

          Ugh. I thought was bad that I don’t get more than 4 weeks PTO until 10 years. But only 2 weeks? That would be a deal-breaker.

          1. Solidus Pilcrow

            Yeah, that employer had some weird issues around PTO.

            Another fun story: The local branch decided to have sort of a forum with representatives of the different business lines to talk about employee retention and how they could improve it. I was selected for my business line. In a 2 hour meeting, we spent a good 45-60 minutes (so about 1/2 the time) discussing PTO accrual, banking overtime hours as PTO/comp time, not being able to take PTO, etc. The HR rep releases “minutes” of the forum… not even one mention of PTO that we spent half the meeting discussing. Granted, we were only one branch and PTO policies were decided at the corporate level and unlikely to change, but to not even mention it was at least discussed?

      3. asteramella

        My employer changed an unlimited accrual policy to use-it-or-lose it. With a strict cap. In September. In an industry that’s incredibly busy in Q4 (Q4 is mostly blackout dates), and a use-it deadline of 12/31. In a company that had many long-timers with literally months of vacation accrued after years of pressure to never take time off. People lost TONS of vacation because they couldn’t take off during the busy period and the company didn’t grandfather anyone in. Most of those long-timers have moved on due to this and other policy changes. It’s so frustrating.

        1. SophieChotek

          Ugh that would be awful! They definitely need to give people heads up – or it seems like the “right” thing would have been to pay out if it could not be used, even if not the legal requirement. But that’s just my two cents-and I know I’m probably wrong…

        2. House of Gourds

          Good lord that is horrifying. Hope the money they saved is worth the lost of all these experienced staff.

      4. Honeybee

        Also, if an employer is going to make a BIG change like that, they should probably think really carefully about whether or not they really have to make that change. My company gives 3 weeks PTO and it goes to 4 weeks PTO at 5 years. I’m not anywhere near 5 years yet, but if they changed it to 4 weeks at 10 years I think I’d be pretty pissed.

    2. MissMaple

      Yeah, and then complain to everyone who isn’t on vacation about the person who dared to take off the days that they got approved!

      1. House of Gourds

        I wish bosses realised how their remarks and actions are detrimental to company morale. The thought that you cannot safely take PTO ever is just depressing.

    3. Audiophile

      10 years of employment for 3 or 4 weeks of vacation? I’m sorry that seems incredibly stingy.

      I thought the staffing company I worked for was bad, but I had 2 weeks around year 3 or 4. You didn’t get any more until you hit 5 years, in which case I think it only increased by another 5 days/40hrs.

      As much as I’m not thrilled with my current role, I get 4 weeks of vacation. I can’t really afford to go away but it’s nice knowing I could have a week long staycation.

    4. Matt

      Oh yes, the crucial stages of the deadline … I’m a software developer and know this too well – I try to be a nice employee and plan my vacations around all major projects. The only real blackouts for me are election days (I work at the government’s IT department), but of course it always raises eyebrows when you’re gone for go-live of another major project or whatever … and the problem is that timelines, deadlines and priorities always change, so you can plan a vacation two or three months ahead and suddenly find your projects re-prioritized and application X is scheduled to go live the very day you’re gone. Luckily they still don’t rescind vacations that were approved, except the one true blackout event of an election.

  2. Karo

    Regarding #3 – whether your office can contact you while you’re out: Let’s say you’re taking paid time off, are non-exempt, and you wind up having to spend 1 hour of your vacation time working. I get that they don’t have to pay you extra, but are they required to give you that ATO back? Or are you just out 1 hour?

    I’m going to guess that the answer is legally you’re just out an hour, since no (maybe very few) states require vacation time, but that a good manager would give you back the hour.

  3. Lemon Zinger

    A few weeks ago, my supervisor tried to make me return to the office when I’d taken a half-day to leave for a vacation! It was to sign a non-essential form. While technically I could have gone back, it would have been a huge inconvenience. I managed to deflect and say that I’d take care of the form when I returned to work, and in the future, I needed more time and notice about things like that.

    It was a huge headache, and it showed that my boss doesn’t respect my vacation time. I’m not surprised; she works around the clock, PTO or not.

  4. BBBizAnalyst

    It’s one cultural thing g I’ve tried to vet during the interview process when getting my current job. No point in a generous leave policy if you work for a manager who doesn’t take vacations. My manager his own annoying habits but he’s flexible with time and letting people be on vacation while ensuring proper coverage. That’s one aspect of this job I’m grateful for.

    I’ve worked for the boss/team connected to work 24/7 and I hated it. Never again.

      1. BBBizAnalyst

        For me, it was about asking about the team culture, how would we work together, are we in silos, how is cross training encouraged. I don’t ever want to work for a team where one essential duty can’t be done if someone is out. That means someone will be calling on your day off. Some of it is also found out in casual conversation before/after the interview for me. Another aspect is that managers don’t shy away from emphasizing work/life balance in the interview. The discussion is much of a selling process for them as it is for me.

        This definitely doesn’t apply to everyone’s circumstances but in my industry, it’s pretty easy to vet out during interviews. These teams can offer a good salary but if it comes at the expense of not being able to have time for myself, it’s an easy withdrawal for me.

    1. MsCHX

      My boss works around the clock but luckily he doesn’t expect me to. This is the first job where I’ve felt comfortable adding my company email to my cell phone because I know I’m not expected to be ‘on-call’. Work-life balance is too important to me!

  5. Anon in NOVA

    This is one of those things I vowed to set some boundaries on when I switched jobs recently. In my previous position, I made the mistake of engaging and answering too many emails while on vacation, to the point where it became an expectation (while it wasn’t for the majority of the employees there). When I started my new position, I emailed my boss before my vacation and stated that I would not be able to check emails/messages during the day because I didn’t want to take my company phone on a beach and damage it, but here was my personal cell number in case of a true emergency (my work is emergency-related). Has never been a problem!

  6. BenAdminGeek

    Perfect timing- my boss just had a meeting with me for not having used enough PTO for the year, and told me to get cracking on scheduling days. Broke down my final “what if they’re unreasonable?” wall at this job, and I’ve now booked my remaining 5 days! It just reinforced for me the difference a good manager makes, and how long we can hold onto bad habits from old jobs.

  7. Zip Silver

    Question on a situation that I wish were hypothetical (but is happening to a colleague and I heard this firsthand from the manager involved)

    Let’s say that an employee requests off 10 days and the manager denies it because it is a busy period and it was a foreseeable busy period. Employee, however, goes on their vacation anyway and was ultimately fired when they came back. However they get their paycheck and realize that the manager didn’t apply the employees vacation time because it was unauthorized vacation time. The employee is raising a stink about it, and my colleague feels justified in what she did.

    Thoughts?

    1. Aurion

      I’d treat it as job abandonment and proceed accordingly. If leaving employees get their accrued vacation time paid out, then you can pay it out on their pay stub. If you’re in a state where vacation payout isn’t required and/or your company doesn’t do it, I guess you’d be in the clear (but it’d be pretty crappy).

      I don’t think it’s ethical for your company to effectively diminish the employee’s vacation time if you typically pay it out but didn’t choose to this time because the vacation was unauthorized. The vacation is part of the compensation package.

    2. Christine

      I would take it a formal resignation of the job if they took off when vacation was denied. I would call and leave a voicemail their first scheduled work day stating asking if they are sick, etc. Unless the employee told you they were going anyway. Send an e-mail, a regular letter and certified letter stating that their not reporting to work on their next schedule shift (use date) was considered a formal resignation since their vacation request was denied. Start termination papers than and there. Use the termination date, as the first date they pulled the “no show.” Pay their salary up to date, include the vacation pay if the company does a pay out. If the vacation doesn’t do a payout, they really screwed the pooch per say. Your friend doesn’t want that person back if they would pull a stunt like that.

      Your friend is fully justified if the company doesn’t do a vacation payout. The employee basically resigned without giving notice.

  8. Anonymous Educator

    I must have been extremely lucky at all my jobs. Even the otherwise-toxic ones I’ve had, my managers have always approved vacation and, in fact, encouraged or even urged me to take vacations.

    I know this might come off as naive, but is it really common for managers to deny time off?

    1. Christine

      You’re not naïve. You just haven’t suffered through it. It depends on the manager. I’m in my mid 50’s, had that issue with only two employers.
      My current boss works 7 days a week and resents it when I ask for time off. When you work with someone that works 7 days a week and holidays (she has no personal life) you’ll get that behavior. The sad thing is, the job doesn’t require it, she just has no social skills and revolves her life around the job.

      You will also have businesses that do not hire the staff they need so when someone is out, it’s a hardship on everyone. When I was bartending part-time as a second job. It was an of not enough staff, and he only hired part-timers but wanted them to view it as their main job. He had trouble keeping staff, I quit one night without warning because of the way he would talk to me and other employees. One night I went in and all of the wait staff and walked off the job the day before. I was working in both the restaurant and the bar that night.

      1. paul

        Our former CEO was like that; I’m so very glad she is gone. I believe in our mission, sure, but on Saturday I want to take my kids somewhere fun (state park, playgrounds, other small towns in the region) and on Sunday I want to watch sports and maybe go to church. Not answer your emails that can wait until Monday.

    2. Solidus Pilcrow

      How hard it is to get approval for time off tends to be heavily dependent on type of work/industry. As an RN in a hospital, my mom had a much harder time getting PTO approved (even when scheduling 2-3 months in advance) than I do as a technical writer.

      Jobs with seasonal or regularly scheduled busy periods (holiday season, tax season, end of quarter, end of fiscal year, for example) will often have black-out dates.

      Of course, sometimes the boss/company is just a jerk (see my comment above where the company changed the PTO accrual) and you’ve been fortunate to have avoided them so far!

      1. Anonymous Educator

        Yes, it could definitely depend on industry, too. I’ve primarily worked in schools. I know enough not to take time off during the busy seasons, and when I was a teacher I almost never took time off, even when sick (a struggle many teachers deal with), but there were scheduled breaks.

  9. Jennifer

    I can take off whenever I want (since I no longer have blackout dates). However, since I am currently the only person doing my entire job and the idea of training others to also do it has kinda gone to “Uh…I dunno, sometime….”, I know darned well I am going to be doing all the makeup all by myself at this point. I’m only taking vacation during the slow time of the year in hopes I won’t have huge amounts of workload…oh, who am I kidding :P Sometimes taking vacation is worse than not taking it, though. I told my boss there are two things I do that are urgent and that cannot wait 2 weeks until I return, but who knows if anyone else will end up doing them.

  10. House of Gourds

    In a previous company I worked for, there was a very structured system to getting days off due to overtime work. I was very relieved, and thought that there was a good system in place to ensured all employees enjoyed a good work life balance.
    Turns out system matters much less than your manager’s attitudes. If there is a general attitude that taking leave is a huge inconvenience to the office, and that you need to be prepared to drop the leave when your boss demands… well, I am guessing this office also has a lot of wasted PTO.

  11. Rebecca

    I’m glad to see this. I just started a new job early this month. I have 2 vacation days to use before the end of December! This on top of 2 paid days at Thanksgiving, 2 at Christmas, and 2 at New Year’s. I’m new, and I’m learning, and I’m really waffling about whether I should actually take these 2 days or not. The vacation/PTO policy is a bit limited for new employees, 13 days for years 1-5 plus 10 paid holidays, so almost 2 days off per month.

    So, I guess I should find out what schedule will work best for the team I’m training with, and go from there, and take my days off guilt free!

  12. DragoCucina

    Wish I’d had the suggested phrasing for when a Board Chair told me in February I wasn’t to take leave for the rest of the year. The phrasing about it being compensation might have gotten through.

  13. Pat

    I’m a salaried employee and we are having a event this weekend at our company I planned a weekend off in December not knowing about this event it’s was never given to us till a month ago and it’s not considered a blackout dates I told my boss 2 weeks ago about this she told me that she would have to get back with me but she never did this trip has been paid for for months today she sent a e-mail saying that all managers must work Friday Saturday and Sunday no exceptions I once again reached out to get by phone and email no response can I be fired for taking this time off Thank you

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