Is it Legal for My Boss to Fire Me for Taking Vacation?

Employers have a lot power when it comes to managing employee vacation days — but some states provide employees with more rights than others when it comes to taking time off.

The situation is all-too-familiar: You’ve had your nose to the grindstone, working yourself to the bone for months on end. The work is tough, but you’ve been very productive and everyone likes you. Still, there’s one thing that gets you out of bed and into the office every morning: the promise of your vacation. It’s the light at the end of the tunnel. You’ve been planning it for months.

Then, just as you’re setting up your out-of-office email message, your boss pops her head in. A client needs something done — and they need it yesterday. Vacation cancelled. You push back. You’ve been planning this forever. You need this. You and your boss go back and forth. She’s sympathetic but resolute. Finally, you ask “what happens if I go on vacation, anyway?”. She shakes her head. “You don’t want to do that. I’d have no choice but to let you go.”

Looking at the same situation from the employer’s perspective, it’s important to remember that a business’s demands are not always predictable. Sometimes businesses simply have to keep their staff at work to keep up with a particular event, season, or trend. Employers who value their team members will take care to avoid infringing on vacation requests when changes in business needs are predictable, and in doing so, develop goodwill and mutual respect, which can make unexpected increases in work more manageable for everyone, even if it means cancelling a vacation or two.

The Law

What a nightmare. Here’s the problem, though: as unfair as it might seem, there’s no law saying that your employer must grant you vacation time. When it comes to vacation time, employers are in the driver’s seat. They determine most of the rules, and if you violate those rules it could be cause for termination.

They can decide how many vacation days you get, and they can use almost any criteria they want. The length of vacation can even vary by seniority, job title, location, or “just because.” The only true exceptions are that vacation policy can’t be based on protected characteristics like race, gender, disability or age over 40.

Employers can decide whether all your vacation days are given to you at the beginning of the year, or if you’re allowed to “borrow” against future vacation days. It’s also up to them whether unused days can roll over from one year to the next. They can even dictate when you’re allowed to use your vacation time — and that decision can be based on anything from workflow to project deadlines to overall staffing levels to almost any other reason they can think of.

As far as your vacation goes, your employer holds a lot of the cards.

What You Can Do

But it’s not all bad news. There are a few situations that might give you more control over your vacation. First, if you have a contract that guarantees you a certain amount of vacation time, or spells out how your vacation time may be used, that agreement will trump the company’s policy.

Similarly, if there is a strong written policy, like in an employee handbook with guidelines on how vacation time will be managed, then that operates like an employer-employee contract and can protect you from being terminated for using your vacation time as specified.

Also, if you’ve made arrangements because your employer approved a vacation, and you’re later forced to cancel those plans due to work, you may be eligible for reimbursement from your employer for any money that you’d lost as a result.

Finally, in some states, if the employer agrees to let employees accrue vacation time, then that time becomes the equivalent of wages that have to be paid out if the vacation time isn’t used.Employers have a lot of latitude in terms of managing your vacation time, but you still have rights. If you think your employer has illegally denied you vacation time, or fired you for taking a permitted vacation, Contact John L. Mays today. For employees who feel they have been treated unfairly, we can act as an advocate, fighting to get you the treatment to which you’re entitled, and the respect you deserve.

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