Vacated Vacations: Scaling Back Time Off Has Consequences

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By Jon Steingart

It’s August. It’s hot. This is when lots of people go on vacation. But even the best laid vacation plans won’t survive if your employer temporarily cancels worker vacations.

“You may have the right to rescind vacation time,” said Philippe Weiss, a Chicago-based managing director for Seyfarth Shaw at Work, the employment law firm’s subsidiary that provides training and compliance services for employers. “Are you ready for the morale impacts that will inevitably follow?”

Scaling back employees’ vacation time is a hassle when there are plane tickets and hotel reservations that need to be changed. It may solve a short-term problem, like filling a big customer order, but the hit to staff morale could present a new challenge.

Canceling Vacation Allowed, but Is It a Good Idea?

Employers may cancel vacations because something major occurred, Weiss said. “By and large it’s something unexpected,” he told Bloomberg BNA. “We call it the U’s: unexpected layoffs, unfortunate deal that has been cratering, upheaval moments.”

“The practical reality is if you don’t follow your own policy or handbook you can be at legal jeopardy,” he said. “For example, in Massachusetts you’re supposed to ensure that people have a ‘reasonable opportunity’ to use accumulated vacation.”

“Assuming that people are conscious of the policy parameters, that won’t end up being the biggest issue,” Weiss said. “You want to make it a very rare event because of people’s perception of your commitment to their work/life balance. They really are morale horror stories more than anything else,” he said of vacation cancellations.

Weiss recounted a story of one employer that canceled an employee’s vacation because there was a big order to fill. The company met its deadline, but the employee who didn’t get his time at the spa was ticked off. He’d been looking forward to the time off and talked about it at work. There was discord when he learned the boss booked a vacation at the same destination he didn’t get to visit.

In addition to morale considerations, some state and local jurisdictions have enacted scheduling laws that may need to be taken into account, Weiss said. These laws, which typically apply only in retail and restaurant workplaces, require employers to finalize staff schedules a few weeks ahead of time. Changes afterward require extra compensation, and an employee’s unwillingness to work a last-minute schedule change may not be used as a basis for an adverse action.

A scheduling law took effect in Seattle July 1 for chain restaurants and retail stores. It requires larger employers to let employees know their schedule a certain number of weeks in advance. Also this year, New York City enacted a scheduling law for fast food restaurants that takes effect in November, and Oregon enacted a scheduling law that will take effect in 2018.

Plan Ahead and Create Favorable Culture

Because time off is generally something that needs to be scheduled in advance, it’s important for managers to create an atmosphere where employees feel like they can and should take vacation, said Katie Denis, vice president and lead researcher for Project: Time Off, a travel trade association-funded organization that encourages Americans to take time away from work. The company and the employee suffer when burnout strikes, she said.

“Opening up a conversation between manager and employee is the best place to start,” Denis told Bloomberg BNA. It can be as simple as saying, “I notice you haven’t taken any time off. Are you going to put something on the calendar?” she said.

Employees can be proactive, too, Denis said. In some businesses, the end of the month or quarter can be a busy period. “If you know you’re going to have a crazy week, schedule some time off afterward,” she said.

Even when there’s nothing in particular coming up that may be stressful, Denis recommend blocking off time in advance. In Project: Time Off’s research, workers who planned ahead reported they were happier than non-planners with their relationships, health and well-being, company, and job.

Workplace culture plays a large role. Planners tended more than non-planners to use all their vacation days and say they work at a place with a culture that encourages taking time off, Project: Time Off found.

One element of workplace culture that should end is the idea that putting in long hours demonstrates that someone is a good worker, according to Project: Time Off. Feeling it’s important to show “complete dedication” to one’s job is a barrier to taking vacation, it found.

“I think at a certain point our productivity levels out,” Denis said. “If you do the same thing constantly you’re not opening yourself up to new ways of thinking. People sacrificing vacation time to get ahead aren’t actually getting ahead.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Jon Steingart in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Peggy Aulino at; Terence Hyland at; Chris Opfer at

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