Missed out on vacation last year? You’re not alone
NEW YORK • In a typical year, New York employees of magazine publisher Conde Nast must use their vacation days before late December or lose them – a common policy across corporate America.
But early last month, the company e-mailed employees to say they could carry up to five vacation days into the next year, an apparent acknowledgement that many scrimped on days off amid the long hours and travel curbs imposed by the coronavirus pandemic.
“The carry-over will be automatic, and there is nothing further you need to do,” the e-mail said. Conde Nast was not alone in scrambling to make end-of-year arrangements for vacation-deprived workers. But some employers have been less accommodating.
“It’s a big issue we’re seeing now – competing requests for time off over the next two weeks,” said employment lawyer Allan Bloom of Proskauer in New York. “Clients are struggling to figure it out.”
Mr Bloom and other lawyers as well as human resource experts in the United States said there was no clear pattern in how employers were handling the challenge.
Many companies that already allow employees to carry vacation days into the next year – like Goldman Sachs and Spotify (generally up to 10 days for both firms) – have not felt the need to change their policies. The same is true for some companies that pay workers for their unused vacation days.
Neither General Motors nor Ford, whose hourly workers can cash out unused vacation days at the end of the year, made changes last year.
However, many workers may find themselves unable to take vacations that they postponed: Salaried workers at both automakers ordinarily lose unused vacation days at the end of the year without compensation.
Other companies have taken steps that could defuse a potential human resource headache and, they say, benefit their workforces in difficult times.
Bank of America, which normally requires its US employees to take all their vacation days before the end of the year, said last June that it would allow them to push up to five days into the first quarter of this year.
Citigroup has typically allowed its US employees to carry vacation days into the first quarter of the next year, but it added an inducement last July: Employees receive an extra vacation day this year if they use all of their 2020 vacation time in the same year.
Smaller companies have made similar modifications.
Latshaw Drilling, an oil service company based in Tulsa, Oklahoma, typically allows office workers to roll over up to three weeks of vacation time.
Last month, Latshaw told its office employees that it would buy up to one week of unused time beyond that amount, which they would have otherwise lost.
“Since this year was so crazy and people were afraid to travel, we made a one-time change,” said Mr Trent Latshaw, the company’s founder and president.
Several experts said a philosophical question loomed over vacation benefits: Is the point to ensure that workers take time off?
Or are vacation days simply an alternative form of compensation that workers can use as they see fit, whether to relax away from the job, to supplement their income or to drag around with them until the end of time, as a monument to their productivity?
An employer’s policies can reflect its views on this question: For all their drawbacks, use-it-or-loseit rules can help ensure that workers take time off, said Ms Jackie Reinberg, who heads the absence and disability practice of consulting firm Willis Towers Watson. By contrast, rollover and cash-out options imply that vacation is an asset they are entitled to control.
Still, for many workers, the issue during the pandemic is not unused vacation days so much as insufficient vacation days.
Mr Jonathan Williams, communications director for United Food and Commercial Workers Local 400, which represents grocery store workers in Mid-Atlantic states, said workers had sometimes been forced to draw down their reserves of paid time off if they were asked to quarantine a second time after a possible coronavirus exposure. Only the first quarantine is typically covered by the employer, Mr Williams said.
And some employees have difficulty taking advantage of the generous vacation policies their companies offer.
A Target spokesman said the company had increased the vacation days that both hourly and salaried workers could roll over into the next year, based on the employee’s role and tenure.
But Mr Adam Ryan, who works for Target in Christiansburg, Virginia, said many employees struggle to qualify for benefits like vacation days. He said in a text message that he had been with the company for three years but typically averaged less than 20 hours a week.
“That way I don’t get any vacation or paid sick days, no real benefits of any kind,” he said.
The Target spokesman said staff could pick up more hours under its holiday staffing arrangement.
Several union officials, employers and human resource experts said financial considerations drove many decisions about vacation policies during the pandemic.
Toyota normally allows hourly and many salaried employees in the US to cash out up to two weeks of unused vacation days. Last year, the company lowered the cap to one week, a change that a spokesman said was intended to help avert layoffs.
The considerations become even more complicated for days that workers push into future years. According to Ms Reinberg, allowing workers to roll over days can create a pile of liabilities owed to workers that many employers are loath to carry on their books.
Mr Dan Grebler, a union official at Reuters, last month said the news organisation cited accounting concerns in sticking with its use-it-or-lose-it policy last year. The union had pleaded for leniency, noting that its contract allows management to approve a rollover of vacation days in “exceptional circumstances”.
“If 2020 has not been exceptional, I don’t know what the hell has been,” said Mr Grebler, an editor who is chair of the workers’ bargaining unit at Reuters. “The response was: ‘No, we can’t do that. There would be complicated bookkeeping involved.’ ”
He added that Reuters had begun urging workers to take days off this past calendar year around the same time it had rebuffed him.
A Reuters spokesman said “our policy for US employees for some years has not allowed for unused vacation days to be rolled over” and that “employees have been regularly reminded since the first half of this year”.
Unionised employees, such as reporters, at The New York Times are encouraged to use vacation days during the year in which they accrue the days but can generally carry them over until March 1 of the next year. Days they do not use by that point are paid out in cash. A company spokesman said the policy remains unchanged.
By both law and custom, many Americans have come to see vacation days more as compensation than as a mandate to take time off.
In a survey by Willis Towers Watson last April, more than half of employers that made or planned to make changes to their vacation benefits said they were doing so because they did not expect workers to use all their days. About onethird that planned changes said the benefit had become too costly.
A few states, like California and Montana, essentially codify the property-right view of vacation by outlawing use-it-or-lose-it policies. (Firms with use-it-or-lose-it or strict rollover policies must exempt workers in those states.)
Such laws protect workers from being deprived of vacation days that are difficult to use during the year only to have them expire at the year end. But these laws may also subtly discourage vacations by making them easier to redeem for money or put off indefinitely.
“To me as an advocate, you should be able by law to keep unused vacation time,” said employment lawyer Peter Romer-Friedmanat Gupta Wessler. “But I’m not sure that creates a good incentive.”
To that end, a number of companies, many in the tech industry, have seized on the pandemic as an opportunity to make sure their workers are decompressing.
Early last year, software company GitLab responded to a significant rise in hours put in by its more than 1,000 workers with so-called friends-and-family days, in which the firm shuts down to discourage people from logging in. Google, Slack and software company Cloudera have started similar policies – none of which counts against workers’ paid days off.
Automattic, the maker of website building tool WordPress.com, has gone even further, encouraging employees who work together to coordinate their vacations as a way to eliminate friction that discourages breaks.
“We’ve been experimenting with entire teams taking time off simultaneously,” said Ms Lori McLeese, the firm’s head of human resources. “We’re hoping that this may reduce the amount of ‘catchup’ work employees typically return to after taking a vacation, making their transition back less stressful or overwhelming.”
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