Q: Can my employer stop me from using vacation days I've earned? I've worked for my employer for more than a year and earned seven vacation days. My parents and sister plan to visit in late September and I'd planned to take them to Homer.
I put in a vacation request, but it was denied. When I asked why, I was told two other employees planned to take their leave in late September and our department couldn't afford to be so short-staffed.
When I complained, my manager said she allowed leave on a first-come, first-served basis. I told her I hadn't known and that my parents were getting on in years and that this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us as a family. She told me she was sorry, but she had to look out for our customers and the whole organization, and first-come, first-served was the fairest method.
I told her she didn't get how important this was to me. We argued and things went from bad to worse and I called her a "b—-." She wrote me up.
I'd like to take the days anyway, and possibly quit when I return. Can she fire me for taking days my payroll slip says I've "earned"? Also, my sister works part time for her employer, and has learned she doesn't even get vacation leave. This seems patently unfair, as the full-time employees she works with get six days a year. She's worked there for nine months; shouldn't she get at least two days paid leave?
A: No federal or state law requires employers to give paid vacation leave. Employers that offer vacation benefits have free rein in deciding how much vacation leave to offer and to which employees. As one example, 91 percent of full-time private-sector employees receive paid vacation days while only 34 percent of part-time employees do.
Employers also have significant legal leeway in setting the rules for how vacation time accrues and when vacation may be used, as long as they don't discriminate based on a legally protected category such as age, race or sex. Some employers prohibit employees from using their vacation during peak workload times. Others require employees to work for three to six months before using any of their accrued leave. Employers can require advance notice, limit how many employees take leave at the same time and even how much accrued vacation days employees may take at once.
This means that if your manager made her decision using a fair method such as who asks first and denied your request based on a legitimate business need, such as the need to maintain adequate staffing, you're out of luck.
Your situation underscores why employers need to give employees clear, written policies concerning issues as important as leave and why employees need to read their employee handbooks. Further, your manager needs to weigh the morale cost of turning down your request against the benefit of having you physically but unhappily present at work during those late September days. She may ultimately regret her decision given the morale cost of denying leave.
Next, you and your manager need to learn better ways to argue. Could you have worked out a compromise? Could you or she have found a co-worker willing to switch vacation days?
Finally, if you decide to take the days anyway, your manager may fire you for not showing up to work as scheduled. This means you may lose six days of paid leave, as she may fire you the first day you don't show up. Are you willing to take that risk?