I don’t have enough work for my employees and it’s stressing me out

A reader writes:

I am the owner of a small business and responsible for my team of three employees. As a tour operator, our work is seasonal, with a very busy period for seven months of the year and little to do for the other five.

During the quiet period, I feel a huge amount of stress to create work for the employees to keep them busy. So much so, it interferes with the quality of work I produce (I take care of sales for the tour operator and community directly with clients; the employees look after the operational side of things).

I dread going into my workplace every morning having enough work only for one employee, knowing the other two would be sitting there twiddling their thumbs. It gets me all panicky and I know that for them, it must be boring and demotivating.

The workload is such that one employee would be sufficient during the quiet months, with three at our peak. I have thought about seasonal employees but don’t think this would be a good fit for our small business. Sourcing and training new staff members every year would be a drain of my time and money.

I have researched into the problem and know that many suggest getting other tasks out of the way that normally don’t get accounted for, such as filing and organizing. We’ve done all that at the beginning of the slow season and now I’m at a loss as to what to projects to give them. So much so, I gave everyone a month off in the middle of the slow season just to give myself a break from the stress of it.

I wish I could relax a little and enjoy the slow season before things get mad again later in the year, but every day I now dread going into work and having to pluck out of thin air things for the employees to do. It would be a lot more productive for me to use that time developing the business. What do I do?

You were on the right track with that one-month vacation. Do more of that!

If you don’t need them there right now … let them not be there.

If there are five months of the year where you really only need one person and you don’t want to hire seasonally — and thus you need to pay people year-round even if you can’t keep them busy — why not let them take more time off? A lot more time off?

If you divided this five-month period evenly, you’d need each of the three people to work about seven weeks during that time. The remaining time would be a huge amount of paid time off to offer … but you’re paying them as it is right now, and having to devise ways to occupy them is making your life worse. The whole point of paying people is to help your business and make your life easier. If you’re going to pay them regardless, why not structure it in a way that doesn’t make things harder on you?

Plus, you’ll likely to be able to attract and retain really strong people if you’re offering that much paid vacation per year.

I know that it might sound crazy to give people three months of paid vacation a year. But really, you are already paying them for months where you don’t need them, and if that’s the model that’s right for you, why not make it easier on you (and awesome for them)?

If you did this, you’d want to talk to a lawyer about creating a contract that protects you — so that you don’t have people taking the months of paid vacation and then quitting right when they’re supposed to come back. But a lawyer can help you structure it so that you’re both protected and everyone’s being fair with each other.

Aside from this, though, how about enlisting your employees in helping solve the problem? They’re probably aware that you’re trying to scrounge up work for them, and they might even feel uneasy about that (since they may not know that you’re committed to keeping them year-round and may worry that at some point you’re going to realize there’s not enough work and lay them off). Also, it sucks to feel like you’re being given busy work. Lay out the problem for them and ask for their ideas. Who knows — they might have great ideas about ways to use their time that you haven’t thought of, or they might have creative approaches to the time off question so that it’s not as extreme as what I’m proposing. But even if they don’t, they’ll likely appreciate a straightforward conversation, and it’ll be interesting to get their perspective. (And maybe they’ll tell you, “Hey, we will happily read and watch YouTube all day — if you’re cool with us doing that until you need us, problem solved.”)

{ 156 comments… read them below }

  1. Aphrodite*

    I like Alison’t suggestions–heck, I want to work for you; where do I apply?–but how about dividing those slow months among them? If you have three months of slow time, give each one a month each.

    1. Aphrodite*

      Oops, I see I made a mistake. So it’s three months off for two of them? In case, divide the time equally between the two. But you will; you sound fantastic!

      My own boss is very cool with my down time. I bring in my personal laptop and do this like this. But work always comes first and he knows it. I am on top of everything. I love bosses who aren’t micromanagers (and I like being an employee who is good and valued).

      1. Logan*

        Three months off for all three.

        If there are three people, and five months of ‘slow time’, then 2*5/3 = 3.33 months each of vacation.

    2. Hey Nonnie*

      I’ll add that I’m all for having an open discussion of this with your employees. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had jobs where I had basically nothing to do, my suggestions of projects I might take on are ignored or shot down, and I’m left wondering if/when they will realize they don’t actually need me and I’ll get kicked to the curb. All while I can’t just openly ask or bring it up myself, because I can’t afford to talk myself out of a paycheck.

      Knowing that you are indeed aware of the state of things, and their jobs are secure anyway would very likely make them a lot happier. Conversely, not knowing might mean they are continuously on the job hunt solely to protect themselves from a layoff they expect will be coming sooner or later, where otherwise they’d be perfectly happy to stay long-term.

  2. Cafe au Lait*

    OP: is there a place that you want to grow your business? Could you give one (or all three) the work of looking into how to grow the area, business proposals, etc?

    1. samiratou*

      I was thinking about this, too. Tour operator in the season–is there something somewhat related you could do in the off-season?

    2. Guacamole Bob*

      Yeah, I was wondering if OP talked to the employees if any of them might be interested in learning the business development side of things during the slow season.

      The other advantage of talking to them is that you might find that one or more of them would value being able to work 3 day weeks all season over having a long block off, or only working mornings, or some other arrangement. I can easily imagine a parent appreciating being able to pick the kids up at 3 every day for a bunch of the school year instead of paying for a sitter/nanny/aftercare, or being able to send the kids only to part-day summer camp, for example. That kind of arrangement would be a *huge* perk that would generate quite a bit of loyalty for the right employee.

      1. Guacamole Bob*

        If the slow season aligns with the academic calendar at any local colleges or universities, that’s another group that might really appreciate part-year part-time schedules (either as students or someone teaching a class).

      2. Sandman*

        Completely agree; our local university has quite a few positions that are 15 hours a week during the school year, 5 hours a week during the summer. It’s amazing for parents, but I would think that a lot of people would love to have their down time at work be real down time.

      3. Dragoning*

        That wouldn’t solve the problem thought–they need all three of them during the busy season, and one of them during the rest of the year. Spreading out the blocks of time off doesn’t work when the work won’t be spread out that way.

        1. Guacamole Bob*

          I meant that if the slow season is 5 months, some people might rather work 3 days a week or shorter days for those 5 months than work full time for 4 months and take a month off. How exactly that would work for people depends on when the slow season is, but there are people who would enjoy that full-time/part-time schedule pretty much no matter where the slow season falls.

          1. Helena*

            God I would KILL for three months’ paid leave – and I think most mothers of small children would feel the same. Jobs that are flexible around school holidays etc are like gold dust.

            My husband would love three months off to spend time painting or writing. A big block of time off like that is great for people with creative hobbies. You can really devote yourself to a big project.

            Or since you work in travel, your employees might want to visit other places, spend time in language immersion… lots of things they could fill their time with.

    3. Celeste*

      This is what I was thinking. Have them do some research into other similar companies. Check out their websites, their reviews on Trip Advisor and Yelp. See what people do and don’t like about them. Figure out how to please your customers with this information. Maybe you want to sell merchandise that advertises your service since it sounds like you’re in the tourism business. Maybe you just need a really better website and your staff can work on that. Maybe you need to have a time where you invite someone from the Chamber of Commerce or a TV news crew to see what you offer so they can play it up for people. Don’t feel like you have to do all the work to grow the business. Let your staff in on it. I think everyone wins this way.

      1. Rebecca in Dallas*

        I work in retail and we do “competition shopping” as often as possible when things aren’t busy. Can they do something similar, take tours at various places in your city and come back with a review of what the other company did well and what your company does better?

        Also, can they help you with any of the sales side stuff or can you train them to be backups in case you need to be out for some reason?

    4. A username for this site*

      I was also thinking this, is there no way you could cross-train them to help out with business growth/management and also clerical tasks?

      Since it’s your business, this would help insulate the business should you fall ill or have a personal emergency.

      1. Lilly*

        I had a friend who ran a tour company! The downtime work he found most useful was:
        – Travel (people love it if you’ve been to their hometown or country)
        – Taking other local tours/building local connections in the tourism and hospitality industry here
        – Languages (a few years and long boring winters in he spoke, conversationally, a ridiculous amount of languages and it was a real boon. When he got big enough to hire he focused on people who spoke languages he didn’t know yet, and they all taught each other.)
        – Research – the annoying, spend-2-months-in-the-archives kind – but he was doing a history tour series so that was handy
        – marketing: website work, correcting and finding listings on tourism sites, link outreach, writing new updates, scheduling social media for the busy season, auditing his online presence and accounts, developing print ads etc.

        1. Lilly*

          Sorry A Username, on my phone and didn’t realize this had nested here?? Didn’t mean to reply, but your suggestion is excellent.

        2. Middle School Teacher*

          As someone who travels with a tour company a lot, I love your ideas, especially the travel idea. One thing I love about the company I use is that pretty much all the staff I interact with have been to the places I’m going. It’s so helpful to talk to them. It’s like a personal recommendation!

        3. LesleyG*

          The learning languages idea is fantastic–could really benefit a tourist-facing company and is a great skill-building opportunity for the employees.

          1. GlitsyGus*

            That’s what I was thinking. If you have a language that comes up more than others all three team members could run through a Rosetta Stone class or whatever during the day and have each other to practice with, it would make it a lot easier to learn and maybe even be a bit of a team building thing as well. Every Wednesday is Italian immersion day!

  3. CM*

    I wonder if you could delegate more too? It sounds like you do a lot of things yourself. You could see if the employees would be willing to create promotional materials, help you develop the business, work on a website, or other things that might not be part of their normal role.

    1. Mr. Bob Dobalina*

      I was thinking the same thing… Learn to delegate! OP seems to have plenty to do himself/herself, so start training the employees to do these tasks.

    2. irene adler*

      Maybe even send the idle employee9s) to take some classes to obtain some new skills for the business.

      1. AnnaBananna*

        Bingo. It sounds like the employees could really use that extra time to skill build and help fill out with the higher level tasks. There are tons of MOOCs (online courses like Coursera) that teach everything from business, to development, and then there are even creative courses online for graphic design, etc. Sky is really the limit these days for cheap courses.

    3. Zombeyonce*

      OP deserves a long vacation, too! Delegating could allow not just the employees but OP to take a month off during the slow season if she staggered the vacations.

    4. LaurenB*

      I’d definitely prefer this. I’d be positively paranoid about the sustainability of a job where I wasn’t needed for months at a time, but getting to learn new skills and provide value in other ways would be a huge plus.

      1. Augusta Sugarbean*

        That’s a really goint point, LaurenB. I’m sure you are right that the potential of layoffs must be on the employees’ minds.

    5. Koala dreams*

      Yes, I was going to suggest this too! It could be a win-win situation for the employees to learn about work in a different area, and the business owner to have a little help.

    6. chickaletta*

      Yeah! Delegate and YOU take a three month vacation. Ha!

      Maybe not three months, but definitely some. One of the best bosses I ever had was at a small company where he would teach everyone how to run the business. Then he’d just like disappear for a few days, nobody (except the office manager) knew where he was or when he was coming back. Usually he’d take his boat to a lake or something.

      I liked it because I felt a sense of autonomy and real responsibility for my work. I had all the tools and knowledge I needed to do my job. It was nice.

    7. Thlayli*

      Delegating is a great idea. It’s a difficult thing to do for some people but I believe there is an article about how to do it on this very site

  4. nnn*

    One thing I’d love if my employer didn’t have enough work for me but I still had to come into the office is to start work later in the day. Even if it can’t be done every day, not having to wake up to an alarm a couple of days a week would be glorious!

    At a minimum, when you have an employee in the office who has no work to do right that minute, you should make it clear to them that you’re okay with them doing nothing until you have something else for them – as an employee, I often find having to put on the appearance of not slacking off is far more stressful than having nothing to do.

    1. LizM*

      This is so true. I started working in a retail environment, where it was drilled into me, “If you have time to lean, you have time to clean.” In college, I worked at an information desk that had to be staffed 18 hours a day. Sometimes there were special projects, but sometimes all the special projects were done by noon, but they still needed a body there for the rest of the shift. I was so stressed out that my manager was going to come in and see me and yell at me for not being busy. It was super freeing when he explicitly told me, “If all the projects are done, I’m okay with you reading or doing homework if there’s no one in this part of the building.”

      1. nnn*

        I had a job like that university, where just keeping the desk staffed was important and homework during downtime was permitted, and I found it actually made me extremely productive. I was highly motivated to get through my day’s to-do list because then I could get my homework done too and have the rest of my day free!

        As a result, if something urgent came in and management was looking for someone to help out, I was almost always free. So management saw me as super efficient and helpful, even though I spent enormous amounts of time at work doing my own stuff. It was a win-win situation!

      2. char*

        Yes, I worked a similar position once, doing tech support at a college. In the summer it was often slow, but they still needed me there in case something came up. I was super anxious about appearing unengaged, so I was really grateful when they told me explicitly that it was fine for me to read or browse the internet during my down time.

        They would also let me go early if it reached half an hour before the end of my shift and there was nothing for me to do (on the principle that if anything did come up after that, I probably wouldn’t have time to finish it before the end of my shift anyway).

    2. Who the eff is Hank?*

      > having to put on the appearance of not slacking off is far more stressful than having nothing to do

      This is me right now. I work at a school and have to be in the office 40 hrs a week all summer to prep for the new school year and in case a parent calls with a question. But the problem is that prep work takes maybe 5-10 hours per week and I get maybe 4 calls a day. Still, the principle is here so I have to find something to do (currently creating organizational spreadsheets for my closet).

      1. Dankar*

        This is my life in the summer! My supervisor gave me a to-do list before leaving on a month of vacation. I did everything on the list in three days and just sort of sat around waiting for the phone to ring. I got into the habit of running on campus at least one day per week, and now I’m dreading giving that up once the students come back!

    3. Little Girl Blue*

      I totally agree with this. I worked at a job with a couple of months of slow period each year and we were given the blessing to read books at our desk, do personal chores like pay bills, etc. The good thing about this method is that if they aren’t busy it is obvious they aren’t busy, so you don’t feel like you are interrupting when there is something real to handle.
      Not everyone can cope with this much downtime, but if they aren’t being required to “look busy” things will be much easier for them and you.

    4. pomme de terre*

      Shortened hours would be a great work-around for the slow months. Also, perhaps OP could shift to a three-day work week for her staff if for some reason having people out of the office entirely doesn’t suit them or the business. Having super-long weekends would be excellent!

    5. Antilles*

      The second paragraph is a really good point. It also helps them feel better about doing nothing – if they have that feeling of “man, gotta look productive”, they’re going to be reluctant to do things like watch Netflix on their phone or read a book or etc…but if you’re clear that you’re perfectly okay with them doing nothing, then they’ll feel a lot more free to do stuff like that (and, consequently, you’ll feel a lot better too).

    6. MsMaryMary*

      Or maybe give employees a day or two off each week? I’m sure they’d appreciate working three or four days in the offseason. I would suggest a permanent schedule, so that Lucinda always has Mondays off and Percival doesn’t come in on Friday.

      OldJob had a lot of people working flex schedules or telecommuting a few days a week. They strongly encouraged everyone to be in the office on Wednesdays. That gave us one day to be face to face with everyone and to meet if there was anything everyone needed to know. You might want to consider doing that if you let folks work a short week.

    7. Smol Cinnamon Roll*

      I’m not one for sitting there and doing nothing, but I find that finding something to focus on (Work or non-work related) like reading (I have been reading this blog for about three weeks now, usually hitting surprise me) or personal work at the desk is fine.

    8. grey*

      I like that idea too – shorter hours.

      I was thinking – volunteering. Pay them to volunteer their time with a great non profit in the area(unless they don’t want to).

  5. LizM*

    Have you considered reducing their hours during the slow season? I grew up in a tourist town, and this seemed pretty common to have people work full time during the summer and part time during the winter. I’m not sure how their salary worked out, or if it was maintained when their hours went down. That’s something you’d probably want to discuss with them before making a decision.

    1. TychaBrahe*

      The problem with that is that a lot of people don’t want seasonal pay. Even many school districts allow teachers to opt to be paid less per teaching period and receive checks during the summer.

      People who want year round work will not stay, and she said she doesn’t want to take the time and money to train them every year.

      She has no problem paying them, just feels anxiety when there isn’t anything for them to do.

  6. BRR*

    First, hats off to you. I think it’s great that you provide steady employment versus seasonal workers and that you give them a month off. Another option might be volunteering. Similar to how companies offer time off for volunteering, your’s could be an expanded version of that.

    1. Bea*

      I wonder if there’s volunteer opportunities the OP could offer employees to be involved in as “company representatives”. So they’re not working on their regular duties but they are in the community giving the company some more exposure? Some marketing with the philanthropy.

    2. ginger ale for all*

      I attended a great series of classes put on by a local company about their field of business at my local library. I found out later that the company had done it as a free community out reach. It was good advertising for them and a win for the library and their patrons.

  7. Antilles*

    I’m with Alison on letting them go home if you legitimately don’t have any work to do. It’s clearly aggravating for you and I’m sure it’s not much fun for them either.
    That said, if part of you would feel weird about paying someone for months on end to sit at home, another alternative is to encourage them to spend the time on some kind of professional/personal development – take free training courses online, read business books, do more detailed research on whatever you give tours on, etc.

    1. char*

      Good suggestion! At my company, we let employees take training courses during slow periods and sponsor certification exams for anyone who wants to receive professional certifications in our field.

    2. Evelyn*

      Yeah, I was going to say this – the downtime is a great time to do training/development. Back when I was a tour guide for a hop on/hop off bus, during the slow season we would sometimes get sent to visit local attractions so that we could be more familiar with them and better able to answer visitor questions. When I worked at specific sites, the slow season was a great time to do more research on specific aspects of the history represented there.

  8. Fiennes*

    Offer that much paid vacation a year, and you’re looking at sky-high retention and morale. I’d make it clear that if the nature of the business changes, and work goes up/evens out, the paid vacation might get seriously trimmed.

    1. Overeducated*

      I’d never leave. I was a tour guide as a student, and it was the most rewarding job I’ve ever had, but I had to stop because seasonal work wasn’t sustainable after graduation; if it paid all year long with a month or more off, I might do it until I retired.

      1. Jill*

        Seconded! I LOVED my tour guide job (and my bookstore job) and would happily have been a lifer at either, but neither were sustainable.

        Also in the same vein as professional/business development: depending on your type of business, perhaps an employee is interested in developing new content/products? For example, if you offer historical tours, maybe someone on your team is a foodie and would love to develop a food tour to add to your lineup.

    2. Thlayli*

      This is the point I was going to make. If your business grows you might have to cut back on the holiday. It’s definitely a good idea to talk to a lawyer and make sure the contract makes clear that this could change as the business grows.

  9. I Gots to Know!*

    I love all of Alison’s suggestions – especially lots of PTO! What a great way to be able to plan some amazing trips.

    That said, if that doesn’t feel right to you either, these slow months are the perfect time to have them build professionally. Are there online courses they could be taking to improve their skills or learn new ones? Do they have ideas for improving things that they could use this time to research and write out a proposal? Where do they see themselves in 3 years at the company – how can this time be used to get them there?

    1. Liz*

      It’s also a great time to send them off on a paid sabbatical: tell them to pick a destination (within their own budget) and you’ll give them a month to thoroughly explore, find out-of-the-way places, look at restaurants and hotels, do whatever tours they can, and then present their findings to the rest of the team upon their return.

      That way they’re increasing their knowledge of destinations, the team benefits, and you get more experienced operators with better morale! Some might pick places close to home, but that’s OK too – you’ll get more incoming business!

  10. Cambridge Comma*

    Could they learn things that you currently pay people to do? Do you have a website? If so, could they learn WordPress and set up a new, better one?
    Does your busy period line up with anything else, such as university holidays?
    Next time you recruit could you look for someone for whom it would a bonus to be able to take a few months unpaid or at a lower rate? Perhaps people who like to travel, or someone I know who can make about half his living as an artist, so has a tourism related job in the summer and paints all winter.

    1. TychaBrahe*

      Or have them research something about the tour and write an article to be published on a web site or even a local magazine. Link to the company’s web site. Increase traffic to the tour group’s web site.

  11. money for nothing*

    You could also ask them to volunteer at community organizations as company representatives. Adopt a park or natural area in your companies name, outfit them in company logo tshirts, and increase your companies visibility while keeping them busy and helping others.
    If you are going to pay them to do nothing, pay them to do good instead.

    1. What's with today, today?*

      Join the Chamber of Commerce and make them ambassadors. I’m on a Chamber board and we ALWAYS need volunteers. And it will benefit business too.

  12. Natalie*

    If you do implement the long paid break, you could structure it the way schools do and pay them for each off season after they work the full on-season. That might cause a bit of a hiccup if you ever hire someone midway through an on-season, but in the event that happens maybe you pro-rate it or just don’t offer it for the first year.

    1. Celeste*

      The way schools do that is to have everyone sign a contract for the year. I think this is why Allison’s suggestion of a lawyer is so great. There has to be a way to work a paid work furlough in.

      1. aebhel*

        MTE, I was just thinking that schools do basically this, so there’s got to be a way to structure it.

        1. blackcat*

          The way that it worked for schools was that the pay for the summer was considered part of the previous school year.

        2. Elysian*

          School have a series of weird rules that are unique to them, but make this work more easily for them – what most do is withhold people’s pay during the year in order to build up a bank to pay them during the summer, when they are technically unemployed (but prohibited from collecting unemployment by statute). Benefits and things like that take all this into account.

          That said, there are ways for even non-schools to do this. I agree with Alison’s suggestion of consulting a lawyer. It’s not too hard (and so shouldn’t be too costly) to set up, but it isn’t intuitive and without the right structure you could end up with some issues with pay, taxes, benefits, people quitting at the wrong time, etc.

    2. Ann O'Nemity*

      I thought of my old school contract too. It was technically a 12 month contract and paid over 12 months, but there were only 10 months of school. The OP may be able to do a modified version of this idea with staggered off seasons so that there’s always at least one employee in the office.

      1. lost academic*

        Exactly this. This helps create retention – assuming they’re being paid enough at the averaged rate to make ends meet during the 7 months of busy season.

        But I’m surprised that this is the immediate answer everyone is jumping to – just pay people for time they aren’t working and that’s great! Is it REALLY economically better to pay that many people for nearly 50% of a year where they aren’t working? Retraining people is certainly less ideal, but I’d wonder if the OP has really crunched the numbers to see which is better or if it’s a gut feel because they’re doing everything themselves. If you really want to keep them on, I’d probably make them part time in the down season and have a real development plan so that their time is being used for the business.

        1. Ann O'Nemity*

          I was thinking of maybe 8 weeks off for each of the three. Staggered, as I mentioned. I know it sounds like a lot when it’s all at once, but it sounds better that having three employees twiddle their thumbs for 5 months while their boss stresses about it.

    3. InfoGeek*

      The way most schools around here do it is that it’s a 10 month contract that can be paid over 12 months. You earn it during the school year, but have the payments spread over 12 months so household budgeting is easier.

      1. Ego Chamber*

        I felt so bad for my teachers when I found out they got paid for 10 months of work with pay split over 12 months—and also they were supposed to spend at least 1 of those months off going to conferences and re-upping certifications and doing things they were required to do for their jobs that they had to pay for. So it really worked out to 10 months pay for 11 months of having their schedules dictated to them, and 1 month off during which most of them worked temp jobs to cover costs for the other month “off.”

      2. Thlayli*

        This would mean reducing the employees pay by 1/6 though and op doesn’t want to do that.

        1. Harper the Other One*

          I think they just mean use the school contracts as the model; OP can still set whatever annual salary the employees have been making as the total value of the contract.

  13. dmk*

    I had a job with seasonal demand also and my boss explicitly told me that, if all of my other projects were done, I could spend my time reading, etc. I couldn’t leave – I had to be there to answer the phone if it rang or if someone stopped by the office – but as long as I wasn’t doing something that would interfere with that (like sleeping), I could do what I wanted. I started learning an additional language and studied for the GRE, as well as read a TON of novels.

  14. Cambridge Comma*

    Assuming your busy time is in the summer, could you offer them each the chance to set up a different seasonal side business related to your quiet time (Christmas pop-up shop, for example) and work out some kind off profit sharing deal in return for the part of their salary that you’re paying when there is no work and for providing office infrastructure? Or something like that.

    1. Thlayli*

      Oo that’s a good idea too. Kind of like when companies let employees work on their own inventions during work hours and then split the profits (common in tech and academia).

  15. MicroManagered*

    My employer has employees like this. There simply isn’t enough work for them to do in certain months, but if they were seasonal, there’s a higher risk of them not coming back, which creates turnover issues. What we do is pay them a lower salary so that they “bank” part of it for the periods they are off.

    So for example, say they’re going to work 8 months and be off for 4 months. And they make $50,000 a year. Their “full rate” would be $6250 per month (they are actually paid by the hour but I’ll use months to simplify it… so that’s $50,000 ÷ 8 months of work), but we spread it out over 12 months and pay them $4166 per month ($50,000 ÷ 12). If they would quit half way through their 8 months of work, we’d pay out the amount they’ve “banked” ($6250 – 4166 = 2,083 x 4 months).

    1. ann*

      I worked in a school that gave an option of getting the same lower amount for each paycheck through the whole year, or getting a higher amount per check through the school year and nothing in the summer.

      Also, like for teachers, I like the idea of allowing the employees the whole season off each year. That way, they could plan to work a second seasonal job in that time if they chose to.

      1. MicroManagered*

        Yes! These are not teachers, but they are paid on a very similar principle–though they don’t have the option. It’s just “You really make $15 an hour but we’re socking away $3 to pay you over the summer.”

        I think the primary reason for that is for insurance benefits.

    2. Ego Chamber*

      I hate to be the person asking “Is this legal?” but how is this legal? Are they paid hourly on contract as contractors and the FLSA/other labor laws don’t apply or does your state have a long timeframe for salary payout that lets you withhold some of the money they’ve earned for up to 8 months? This seems like the kind of thing that would have to be optional, at the very least. Or are you not in the states?

      1. Bea*

        It sounds like ‘Jan through June you make 35 an hour and July through Dec you make 25 an hour’ to me. Which if you have it written out and signed in a job offer is very much legal. If they work OT they’re due time and a half.

        You can have different pay rates. In terms of Guides make X rate, Admin work makes Y rate.

        1. MicroManagered*

          It’s more like “You make $35 an hour for your 8 months of work, but $10 of it goes in the bank for your off period.” If they have overtime during the working months, they get paid overtime at the full $35 rate.

      2. Elysian*

        Most of the time teachers authorize the withholding – they can either agree to have their pay withheld and then be paid in the summer, or they can only get paid for 10 months.

      3. MicroManagered*

        It’s plenty legal!

        First, they make far over minimum wage.

        During the 8 months, say they make $20/hr as their “full rate.” Their paycheck is paid at $15/hr as their regular rate, with $5 going to the “bank” for the off period, which will also pay at $15 an hour. (Please don’t try to follow this math–I’m totaally making it up!) If they have overtime during the working period, the overtime is paid out at the time, using the “full” rate. (So $20/hr x 1.5 = the overtime rate)

    3. Cassie the First*

      Our professors are paid an annual salary (9-month, from Oct to June) but it’s paid over 12 months. I heard it’s so the faculty get a paycheck each month, but also because otherwise their health insurance premiums would get all messed up. If the professor quits mid-school year, I think they are charged back 1/3 or 2/3 of the annual salary.

  16. Just Me*

    Love the idea of time off and working on the company website. A couple of other thoughts… What about training materials? Writing out procedures and making sure that everything is up to date? Most cities change a bit overtime, would creating some “best” lists that can be shared with your customers be useful? Planning out social media posts for the upcoming year / season?

    1. Just Me*

      I also really love the idea of asking them what they think they could be doing. I think asking employee input is a great way of showing them you value them.

      1. Thlayli*

        This is the first thing OP should do. Have a meeting with them and ask for their thoughts.

        Of course, OP shouldn’t mention the option of paid holiday first off as once that’s mentioned nothing else will seem appealing.

        However after that meeting sit down and think about all the options. And then see about implementing some of them and also give additional PTO. And then it will seem awesome.

  17. Send Help*

    I can’t help but wonder if perhaps the slow times would be less slow if you funneled some of their time into marketing? You mention developing the business – can they really not help with that? I find that confusing a little. As a small business owner I wish I had this problem because social media takes so much of my day. I wish I had someone to run it and take photos for my business and help it grow this way. Perhaps giving them a different kind of job than what they’re hired for? Apologies if this has already been done – but I’m thinking beyond filing. I’m thinking getting them set up with unique jobs to develop you business in slow times, something they automatically know to do, like online promotion, door to door flyer delivery, connecting with other businesses, etc.

    1. A Reader*

      I love this idea! I think expanding their duties to include something might be the way to keep them engaged and active during the slow season. I also love the idea of asking employees for input. The OP just might be surprised with what is suggested.

  18. it_guy*

    You could have them do community / public service! If you have them do it for a registered charity while they are on the ‘payroll’, there might be some tax advantage to that as well.

    1. nonymous*

      This is a great idea. A lot of places let their employees pick the charity project, so the volunteer time can support projects that the employees are already involved in on their own.

      Brainstorming some other ideas:
      – have a rotation of staff assist the owner so that they can have a slow summer too! Also: are there any well-established customers that can be passed off to a capable assistant? Some companies will assign customers based on account value, but I’ve also seen the scenario where a sales person brings in subject matter experts to give presentations (then the sales guy at least won’t have to prepare a presentation, just manage the room)
      – have staff offer training to others. Were there any lessons learned from the previous season? what could change to improve the next season? Even if the services don’t substantially change yoy, customer expectations can drift – for example how to deal with more people bringing little dogs everywhere?
      – have staff pitch improvement/research ideas for the next season. Does the logo need tweaking? Can someone do market research on potential new customers? Is there a better vendor that the company could use? What services are other tour operators providing? Are there any capital improvements necessary?

      I know the LW is busy, but I think they should take a couple hours (maybe over lunch with staff) and have a brainstorming session – see what they come up with, and be ready to offer a couple ideas to kick start them if crickets. At the very least they should be able to walk away with an action item for everyone for the upcoming week. Subsequently, they could just meet for 30min – 1hr/week as a group to articulate the plan for the upcoming week or so. With a company this small, they probably are already chatting this much, but just need the practice of focusing on a joint task and sharing leadership.

  19. lisalee*

    As a person with a lot of hobbies and a couple side-hustles, I would LOVE a job that allowed and encouraged me to pursue other interests for a few months of the year. Even if I had to be in the office for some period of time each day.

    Broadly, I think there’s a sense that employers are paying employees for their time, and that you are only getting value from your employees if they are physically at work 40 hours per week for 50 weeks a year. Personally, I find it much more valuable to think about the services I’m providing to an employer instead of the time. Do you feel that your employees’ output, over the whole year, is worth $X? If so, does it really matter how many days it takes them to produce that output? You don’t *have* to create work for your employees if its not actually adding value for you or them.

  20. Brenda L Schardine*

    What about offering your employees paid volunteer projects in the slow season? Animal shelters, Meals On Wheels, Food banks, could all use help.

  21. Maddie*

    Hire part time employees letting them know from the start it is a paid nine month work year. Pay them a nine month yearly salary and let them know three months will be unpaid. Offer them full time benefits. This will appeal to many people the way a teacher’s work year schedule does. I have a friend who has a schedule like this and she loves it.

    1. pleaset*

      I think this is the most realistic.

      And don’t be super-strict about the nine months – if a person need the block “off” to be slightly longer (a few weeks on either side) to make anther job work, allow them.

    2. Dr Wizard, PhD*

      This is an option for some people at my employer, but you can choose to be paid your 9 months of salary spread over 12, which I presume most people do.

  22. RandomusernamebecauseIwasboredwiththelastone*

    Without knowing the details of your business or the employee’s roles I’m going to struggle a little to bit with the suggestions… so don’t laugh if they don’t apply or are terribly off base.

    *Look at free or low cost events and/or organizations that you can send your employees to as representatives, I’m thinking along the lines of chamber of commerce meetings/events, community government meetings for applicable topics (New stadium informational meetings for example), rotary, toastmasters, or other things that may not be full blown marketing events, but could be a good way to get information back your business that could help with your marketing or clients.

    *Is there an employee that is interested in classes or something that could in the long run help you. If you have a #2 in the office that maybe doesn’t have all the skills needed to help you with some of your work could you come to an agreement where they take some classes (either paid by you or on their own) but you’ll pay them salary while they attend the classes. Short term they are busy and longer term they may be able to help you more with your other stuff.

    *Ask the employees what they think, do they have any ideas they’d like to try or implement. Maybe for whatever reason you don’t want them doing the work that you are doing, but maybe they have their own ideas for something. It’s a great opportunity to see if maybe Fergus has always thought there was an opportunity for specialized Ghost tours which doesn’t really fit into your Homes of the Rich and Famous tours, but hey give Fergus to plan, organize, and pilot his Ghost tour idea.

    *I liked the idea someone else had about looking at things you are paying for and teaching the employees to do. Marketing materials… websites…

    Otherwise, I really do think you are fine with the vacation if you can afford it and are ok with the arrangement. So if your slow period is 5 months starting with the first month of the slow season…

    Slow Month 1- All 3 in office get caught up on all the non-priority work from the busy season.
    SM 2- Employee A in office, B&C Vacation
    SM3- Employee B in office, C&A Vacation
    SM4- Employee C in office, A&B Vacation
    SM5- All 3 in office prep for busy season

    A rotation has the advantage that you have coverage and you could still do some of the other things to keep them busy.

    1. RandomusernamebecauseIwasboredwiththelastone*

      Sorry one more idea…

      *When you are all in the busy season keep a log or a whiteboard or something to write down all of those things you want to do but don’t have the time for right at that moment. Encourage your employees to do the same. It can be anything from ‘Get the carpets cleaned’ to ‘document this fiddly process we only do once a year but have to relearn it every time’. I started to do this in my own job and for my teams. This is the list I pull out when there’s an unexpected internet outage or I look around and everyone is twiddling their thumbs.

      This also can take some of the pressure off of you to come up with these ideas on the fly.

      * You can also have them come up with a monthly list of ‘housekeeping’ things. Not literal housekeeping, but that could be included too. These are things that have to be done Annually, Quarterly, Monthly, and daily. Slot them out in a calendar. Make sure they are spread out as optimally as you can. There’s no sense in trying to squeeze in regulatory training during your busy season when it can be scheduled during the slow time, right?

    2. Mamunia*

      The only thing I don’t love about that rotation is employee B has their vacation broken into 2. That could make it difficult if they want to supplement with another job or do something else with their 2 months off. Is also not quite fair because the other 2 employees would get to take their months consecutively.

  23. Syren*

    Weekend Warrior Oregon Raft Guide here. A lot of my colleagues work in the summer guiding on the river (whitewater rating / SUP / Kayaking) and teaching ski lessons or doing ski patrol in the winter. Is it possible that there is another business close by that you could partner with that has opposite seasons so that the employees could move from one location to another throughout the on and off seasons? (assuming the distance isn’t too long).

    1. Nerdgal*

      I came here to say the same thing. I have heard of cases where two complementary businesses have done exactly that!

  24. AnotherSarah*

    Would having employees do corporate volunteer work (that is, as official reps of the company) be a possibility? Something non-political, obviously. I’ve seen teams of employees from X Inc. and Y and Z LLC shirts around town at the food bank and in the parks–that might be interesting and productive, and good for business.

  25. Eternal optimist*

    I’m a firm believer in “train your replacement” management. There will come a time when you will either want or need to take time away from your business. Training your valued employees to do your job not only gives them confidence about the work you do, but also allows them to see a future for themselves. For example, my daughter is currently working as a replacement employee for a company where the owner has one person trained to do his billing. That one person was hospitalized over the weekend and his billing is now at a stand still. Not good.

    By training them to do your job means you’ll set a standard for them and you also risk teaching them everything to become your competition. If that’s how you’re approaching this, they will eventually become your competition anyway. By and large people who are treated well, and trained well, will remain loyal. Think of it as the fact that maybe you might get a vacation too one day!

    1. RandomusernamebecauseIwasboredwiththelastone*

      Totally agree with this. My philosophy has always been to work myself out of a job… that means I make sure that I have trained my teams to work independently and take over for me. When I get to the point where I have time on my hands because they are doing all of the day to day, I start stepping into other roles and projects, which has allowed me to continue to grow and progress myself.

      This may not be totally applicable to a small business owner, but it’s a good philosophy to have wherever it’s possible. And to your point about training your competition, it could just as easily be train the person who you sell your business to when you are ready. Never hurts to have an exit plan!

  26. Brit*

    Yep, I would totally work here. I would love that much guilt-free (guilt-free cause you know you’re not negatively impacting the business or your coworkers) time off!
    I also love Alison’s suggestion to ask your employees what they’d like to do. They might well have suggestions or even training they’d like to undertake that they could do during this time. Maybe one specializes in chocolate teapot tours, but wants to get more involved in giving chocolate coffee tours and can take this time to learn about them. Etc.

  27. Goya de la Mancha*

    I’m going to second all those with the delegate/training others part. Super helpful to begin with, but will have long term perks as well (you can go on your own vacation with less worry!)

    Other then that, I think depending on who you are hiring (teens/college students?) would probably greatly enjoy being able to read/study if there just isn’t that much work for them. Which if they sit there and help with general questions, this can help free up your own time for other projects.

    Our slow time is for the tasks that no one really wants to do. Since we don’t have a hired cleaning crew we do things like waxing the floors, shampooing the carpets, etc. DEEP cleaning, throwing an new coat of paint on areas in need, purging old records/materials (this is actually one of my FAVE things to do), updating handbooks/policies, etc. So those days are usually filled with a healthy dose of internet/phone time and getting tasks that need to be done every so often accomplished.

  28. Cucumberzucchini*

    Some ideas for what they could do in the slow season:

    Keep up Social Media Channels
    Look in PR Opportunities
    Keep you your Trip Advisor Pages
    Build SEO
    Make promotional videos
    Develop an off season expansion industry. Some tour companies are able to find something off season to develop. I just took a moose tour and the tour guide told us about other tours he does in the offseason for example.

    1. misspiggy*

      Where did you do your moose tour? Apologies if off topic, but this is exciting stuff!

      1. Cucumberzucchini*

        It was in Maine, the company was called Young’s Guide Service. It was a private tour which was nice. I would recommend going in the morning, you have better chances of taking daylight photos. We went in the evening and our close moose encounter was a after the sun had gone down so the photos didn’t come out great. The tour guide was very dedicated to making sure we had the best chance possible of seeing a moose.

    2. BadWolf*

      Some related noodling around type ideas

      –Stock up on photos for an Instagram channel that can be used through the year. Maybe do a special “off season” series of posts. Behind the scenes, “throwback” photos, etc.
      –Review the websites/social media of similar tour companies, both near and far. Use it to update your own website/social media. Not to steal ideas, but user experience things — are their hours hard to find? Make sure your hours are easy. Is their FAQ informative but funny, maybe spice up your FAQ.

  29. Persimmons*

    Alison, you should be matchmaking this LW with yesterday’s LW #2 and her Asia trip. :p

  30. Compulsive Overexplainer*

    A company in my town had a similar issue a few years ago. Rather than lay staff off or make busy work for them, they “loaned” them out to local non-profits for two or three months. The employees were paid their regular wages, but reported for volunteer work at one of several non-profit service organizations. It was a huge success, and built tremendous good will in the community for that company.

  31. Jaydee*

    There are a lot of industries where this seasonal ebb and flow of work is pretty common and multiple ways to handle it if you want to keep the same people around. A lot of schools only have most of their employees physically at work for about 9 months of the year, but they divide the salaries out over 12 months (or at least give that option) so employees still get a paycheck in the summer. A lot of construction and manufacturing trades will lay people off and rehire them seasonally. During the layoff, they’re eligible for unemployment, and they agree not to take other work that interferes with being ready to come back when the layoff is over. Personally, I prefer the first if you can swing it financially (it sounds like you can, since you’re currently paying them all for 12 months anyway). It does a better job of ensuring a consistent income and any benefits they’re entitled to. But both address the issue of busy and slow seasons and wanting to maintain long-term employees instead of hiring short-term or seasonal employees.

    1. jm*

      I came here to say something similar to your first suggestion. I work 9 months/187 days for a school district and LOVE it. I took a pay cut (25-30%) when I stepped down from my 12 month/260 day job, but the quality of life and time with my kids is worth it. If OP wants to cut payroll costs and reduce staff during the slow season, but still retain staff for the rest of the year, this would work well.

  32. LurkieLoo*

    So many great ideas here! If I were in this position, I would definitely ask the employees how they would like to handle it once you decide on an approach or three that will work for your business. I personally wouldn’t want to be off for a full month or two at a stretch. I’d rather be off for 1-2 weeks at a time. Of course, part of that is because my work just piles up while I’m gone. It shouldn’t be too terrible to come up with some rotation that makes everyone happy.

    I think your biggest hurdle is going to be getting all 3 on the same page, but once you have a policy, new hires shouldn’t be a problem.

    1. Bea*

      Even if I was paid to sit out a month at a time, I would claw my eyes out from stress and boredom.

      This would be the perfect job for folks who want to do annual sabbaticals though. Like the person going to Asia for 2 months.

  33. prussianblue*

    What about holding some kind of staff appreciation day where you treat them after the busy season ends, but then spend time brainstorming how to grow or improve the business together so you can make a plan for their down time?

  34. Jaybeetee*

    We encountered a similar issue at the museum where I worked. Unfortunately, it was also mishandled by management, resulting in people’s hours getting cut, weekday staff being suddenly told they’d have to start working weekend shifts, etc. I understand *why* they did it, as we were also all twiddling our thumbs all week, but, well, it’s not great for morale when people are hired full-time M-F, told they’d only have to occasionally pitch in on a weekend, then flip all that on its head a few months later. One person quit because she couldn’t afford the cut hours. A second person quit a little while later because she hated working weekends, and had partially taken the job because she’d been told she’d rarely have to do that.

    Frankly, if I were in charge, I’d just look the other way while people read books or surfed the internet. But maybe that’s why I’m not in charge. I think the idea I like best here, apart from extensive paid leave, is focusing on professional development during that time. See what courses, online or otherwise, you can get people into. Maybe also get your staff on board for programming ideas during the high season – any new tours/ideas/programs that could be introduced? The slower season can be spent developing some of those ideas as well.

  35. Bea*

    You want to retain these folks and are within your budget it sounds like. The only issue is trying to find busy work. So up everyone’s PTO and work out an off season schedule. It’s really going to serve everyone the best. Nobody is punished and your costs stay the same.

    Actually it lowers the worked hours most states require reports on, since that’s what workers comp is calculated on. It may even lessen your liability in that case.

    Encourage further development and let everyone goof off if they are out of things.

    I spent years wasting time in a job that was hot and cold. All I cared about was not having ownership breathing down my neck preaching the annoying “time to lean means you have time to clean” malarkey. You can only clean so much in a quiet office, etc.

  36. SarahKay*

    OP, I have no ideas that haven’t already been suggested above, but I would love an update on this at some point in the future – what you decided to do, and how it worked out for you and your team.
    It sounds like there are so many great options that are likely to make you all happier. Good luck!

  37. Ruth*

    Another option is to have them rotate on days of the week and then donate their paid time to charities that you can all agree on.

  38. Episkey*

    I don’t really know the ins & outs of this, but could you “lay them off” during the slow season (with full knowledge that they will rehired at the start of the busy season) every year? They could collect unemployment during the months of being laid off and then they are rehired at start of busy season with full salary…could keep them on medical/dental insurance year round as well.

    1. Bea*

      Unemployment rates would spike causing extra cost for multiple years.

      They would also be expected to look for full time work after awhile and burn their UI that could harm them if they ever need it since it’s only for a limited timespan.

      Not a fan of using the insurance program like that unless dire circumstances. Depending on their state they’re also getting a huge decrease in pay and will lead to turnover.

    2. Pibble*

      I don’t think that’s a good look — I’d just not come back next busy season if I found out my employer wanted me to unethically abuse (in my opinion) a program meant to help people who were genuinely without a job…

      1. Episkey*

        I don’t feel like it’s abusing the system, but I was under the impression this is how it works in a lot of fields where there are busy/slow seasons, like construction.

  39. Nerdgal*

    I came here to say the same thing. I have heard of cases where two complementary businesses have done exactly that!

  40. Secretary*

    I work in an office where there is slow times of year too. It’s completely random. Some weeks I have a huge workload and the phone is ringing off the hook all day on multiple lines, other weeks I’m sitting at my desk checking the phone to see if it’s still working.

    It’s actually a huge perk, because if it’s slow my boss doesn’t care what I do, and I get so much done for my personal life. Your employees might actually like the slow season if they know you’re not going to lay them off!

  41. Bethany D*

    Retention bonuses are an option too! You could give them the choice between paid time split between working in the office, taking some generous PTO, doing professional development directly related to their job, and/or volunteering in the company’s name – OR they can choose to take most/all the off-season unpaid, but then receive a hefty bonus when they return for your busy season.

  42. Free Meerkats*

    If you truly only need one person on site during the slow season, and you’re willing to offer the PTO, talk with the three about halfway through the busy season and have them work together to provide coverage during the slow season so one person is expected to be there each day and give you a proposal for approval.

    Flopsy may want to take the contiguous months off while Mopsy wants to be gone for a couple of weeks each month and Peter is happy filling in the empty spots.

  43. Cat owner*

    Please send in an update when you sort it, OP, I’m really interested to see what direction you go in – especially having been in a similar situation on your employees’ side which didn’t end happily (ended in a lay-off for one of my coworkers…)

    Also: you seem like a really good and conscientious boss! They are lucky to have you.

  44. Tag, The Good Boss*

    This is a great solution. As another business owner, when I need to give people work, I have them start researching other services or products we could be offering to our customers. For example:
    – Could you arrange for someone to take photographs or videos of people taking your tours and sell them to the people in those photos or videos? Even with smart phones, people will still pay for an official event photo as I learned last month on a steamship tour in New Orleans.
    – Could you create an annual calendar and/or greeting cards with scenic photos based on your tour?
    – Could you create new souvenirs based on your tour? If you do a polar bear tour could you sell stuffed polar bears, fake snowballs, snow globes, etc. If licensing is required could you have an employee looking into it?
    – Could you have an employee work on adding new articles to your website every week to potentially attract more customers?
    – Could you be doing more social media marketing? If you’re on Facebook and Instagram, have you thought about Snapchat and Pinterest?
    – Could you have an employee look into forms of advertising you haven’t yet considered, such as small town newspapers or radio stations?
    – Could you publish a book based on your tour?
    – Could you offer additional off-shoots of your tours? For example, if you’re taking people to see polar bears could you also offer tours to see the northern lights? Are there other locations you could do tours such as the south pole?
    – Could you offer a VIP tour with a celebrity?

    You have an amazing resource available to you in these staff members, not only in terms of time, but in potential ideas. The list above is what I came up with in 10 minutes of brainstorming by myself, not knowing exactly what you do. If you ask your employees what services and products they think could bring you more revenue, you may come up with some great ideas that they will be excited to work on.

    This will be good for your business too. Most businesses do not remain at the same level of success forever. You can stay in business by having new sources of revenue when the old one(s) are no longer bringing in crowds.

    Good luck to you!

  45. MLB*

    DI love Alison’s suggestions. If you can afford to pay them all for the full year, definitely look into providing more time off for them. I work for a government subcontractor and we just have to be available to the client when they need us. We have busy times, but most of the time it’s pretty slow. It was a big adjustment, but it allows my manager to be flexible with our time. I WFH often, am able to modify my hours if I need to take my stepson somewhere or have an appointment, etc. Yes I get bored, but it’s probably not as big of a deal as you making it into. Have you spoken to your employees and asked them how they feel during the slow time?

  46. jm*

    What about changing 2 of the positions to be permanent 9 month jobs, with the 3 months off during the slow season? And you COULD pay accordingly (About 1/4 less than you pay the 12 month employee).
    Lots of school district jobs are like this — mine is. I work 9 months/187 days per year (basically August 1 – June 1, with additional weeks off at Thanksgiving, Christmas, Mardi Gras and Spring Break). I get paid 12 months of the year (annual pay for 9 months of work is spread out over 12 months).

  47. Julie Thorner*

    Hi there. I run an adventure marketing agency and have worked in the outfitter business for years prior to that. To pay your staff year round for a seasonal job is not best practices. Keeping the one person on staff year round, while the other two get other seasonal jobs (for the opposite season) is the standard practice. The year round work should be a mix of operations that can only be done in the off season (like gear, eqp, vehicle and facilities repair and maintenance), and also that is key to front load before the season (marketing and sales), for example. Recruiting new staff can also be an off season activity. If your current staffers have strong knowledge of your tours, the area, guest needs, and the benefits of what you offer – they can be creating valuable SEO-rich, user-rich content (blog posts, articles, photo galleries, videos, interviews, etc.) that is essential to helping your business gain greater visibility with prospects on multiple digital channels (social media, website, PR, email campaigns, etc.) in the offseason, as well as working hard for you during the season.
    Another thought – I am not sure that you actually have A team players if they are happy hanging out with not enough to do during the off-season, or not bringing you ideas on their own or in collaboration with you to support the business. Offering three months off paid is not prioritizing your business financially or your own retirement assets since as owner you drive the bus and take on all the responsibility. Having them take so much paid time off while you work hard all off-season is a recipe for resentment.
    Hope this is useful perspective for you.

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