TT: A Long Holiday Without Fear

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering?  Just page back and learn a little about the care and feeding of a writer.  Then come on back and help me explain to Alan how holidays work – or don’t – in the country of your choice.

Holiday Pursuits

Holiday Pursuits

ALAN: I’ve just gone back to work after a nice, long relaxing Christmas break. One of the things I stumbled over during my holiday was an internet discussion group that was talking about American vacation habits.

To my surprise, many people were complaining that they didn’t dare take holidays from work because they were scared that they’d be sacked and replaced while they were away. Since I live in a country where workers are mandated by law to take a minimum of four weeks holiday a year whether they like it or not (and many employers insist on giving their workers more than that), I found this quite shocking. Do you have any thoughts about this?

JANE: I guess I’d better start with the reminder that I don’t get any paid holidays at all.  That’s one of the joys of being self-employed.  Before that, I was a college professor.  That’s a job where there is ample time off, but little choice as to when you can take it.  So I suspect this is a topic where our readers are going to need to help out in explaining how matters work here in the U.S.

I’ll start by asking you a question.  When you say four weeks vacation mandated by law, do you mean that those four weeks are paid?

ALAN: Yes – paid leave. We get paid sick leave, parental leave, and bereavement leave as well, over and above our holiday allowance. A friend of mine once took bereavement leave because his pet rat had died. Some people mocked him for that – but not me. Grief is always real and he was very, very upset and quite incapable of work so why should he have been forced to come in?

If I may neologise for a moment, “presenteeism” (as opposed to absenteeism) has always struck me as being a short sighted policy. What’s the point of being there if you are sick, or grieving? You won’t get anything useful done.

JANE: I agree with you – although sometimes work can be a great distraction from grief.  It was for me when Roger died, but I doubt it would have been if I hadn’t loved writing.

Anyhow, you get all this leave  for any job, even flipping burgers?

ALAN: Yes, indeed – there’s even a minimum wage that employers have to pay.

JANE: We have a minimum wage here, too.  The amount is set by the federal government, although a state or city can choose to set a higher minimum wage.

However, vacation time and other types of leave are considered  benefits or bonuses, not something set by law.

ALAN: I understand that in America you have employees known as interns who aren’t paid anything at all, but who are just getting job experience. Is that the case?

JANE: That’s right.  There are both paid interns and unpaid interns.  As our economy gets hit harder and harder, unpaid is more likely.  Again, this is an area where someone else can probably provide details that I can’t.

ALAN: I won’t say that never happens here because I know that it does, but it’s very rare. Most intern-like positions would actually pay minimum wage.

JANE: Going back to how paid vacation time is handed out, policies vary a lot.   Often someone new to a job doesn’t get any paid vacation.  In some cases, there is a formula for accruing paid vacation and sick leave based on how long you work.  Back when I worked for the Small Business Administration (summers in college), I was enchanted to find that I earned both sick leave and vacation time.  That certainly wasn’t the case when I worked at a restaurant.

How long does a person need to work at a job to get that mandated four weeks?  Certainly, you can’t just start and then claim vacation time.

ALAN: Indeed you can’t! You have to be in the job for a year to be able to claim the full four weeks. But during the first year you accrue leave at a pro-rata rate.  But if you wanted more than your accrued allowance during that first year, very few employers would quibble on the grounds that you’d certainly make it up later.

Actually, when I first came to New Zealand, the mandated holiday allowance was only three weeks. I was horrified! The job I had in England gave me eight weeks – but I must admit, that was exceptional. Most UK jobs gave four or sometimes five weeks holiday allowance.

JANE: Astonishing…

ALAN: There were also a lot of postings in the discussion I eavesdropped on about “at will” and “right to work” states where the posters said that employees could be fired at any time for any reason or for no reason.

It’s almost impossible to sack people here. In the whole of my working life, I’ve only known of two people being summarily dismissed, one because he swore at and threatened violence to a customer, and one because he stole money from the company. Outside of that, it’s almost impossible to get rid of an employee.

JANE: I can’t say it’s impossible to fire someone here, but it isn’t quite as easy as you seem to think.  I remember the convolutions Jim went through trying to get rid of someone who wasn’t showing up at work, wasn’t doing his job when he was there, and several other things I’d better not mention.  Jim had to document all of this –  then in the end the fellow just stopped showing up, solving the problem for them.

However, didn’t your wife recently lose her job?

ALAN: Yes – but Robin was made redundant and that’s quite a different kettle of fish. That means that the job she was doing was no longer required by the company. Because her job had vanished, there was nothing for her to do and so they let her go. She was paid six months salary as compensation,which was quite a handy chunk of change!

JANE: Again, similar programs do exist here.  They’re not mandated by federal law, rather by state law or specific company policy.

I’m betting some of our readers can help you understand what those folks were so afraid of that they wouldn’t dare miss work.  I know we have readers from other countries as well.  I’d be interested in hearing how hiring and firing and vacation time work elsewhere.


11 Responses to “TT: A Long Holiday Without Fear”

  1. Heteromeles Says:

    One reason I write under Heteromeles is because I live in an “at will” employment state, and indeed you can be fired quite quickly here. It fosters a corrosively mercenary attitude towards work, but I suppose it strokes the power fantasies of rich industrialists. I didn’t take a vacation for eighteen months in one job, in part because a governmental client insisted on modifying a contract on Christmas eve and fiddling with it until New Year’s Eve. In that job, I took my first and only paid day off to interview for another job, and didn’t take a day off on that one either.

    Even as an environmentalist, we don’t get normal holidays either. It’s normal for the worst environmental impact reports to come out around Christmas or in August, because the rules say that if the public doesn’t comment on time, the thing goes into effect as written.

    My partner has to plan for vacations long in advance, due to job constraints, and we’d planned time off for the holidays. Then a really evil EIR came out just before Christmas. This one that proposed to bulldoze, burn, and spray more of the state than burns on average every year, in the name of making it safe from fire. They also claim it’s too expensive to follow clean air and water laws when they do this, so they ain’t gonna. Finally, they want to create a simplistic legal blueprint so that anyone can do the same thing they can, even get state money to do so. All this in over 1,000 very badly written pages.

    There went my vacation, and I had to make many apologies to my partner, who got cooped up with me reading this toxic document. We’re rescheduling our vacation for another time, many months from now.

    This isn’t new. My mom’s another environmentalist, and back when I was in school, she’d often stay up late, between Christmas and New Years reading those damned EIRs and commenting on them to make the December 30 deadline. Her computer was in the guest room I stayed in, and one time I had to kick her out at 3 am so I could get some sleep.

    So why don’t we take vacations? That’s why. I’m afraid we’ll only get our vacations back when the heads of the people who like these games decorate spikes around the burning embers of their mansions, not that I’d advocate such violence in reality. At least we don’t have it as bad as the Chinese or the Bangladeshis do. At least I have clean-ish air to breathe. For the moment.

  2. Paul Says:

    The newspaper where I worked before I retired gave two weeks annual vacation (three weeks, after you’d been there a very long time), but you had to get approval in advance for when you wanted to take it, so they wouldn’t have too many reporters off at the same time. Likewise, they allowed (I think) five holiday days, but again, this being a daily paper, some folks would have to take them on some other day. When I left, I ended up with some unused vacation time, but I probably got enough. All this may have tightened up now, as newspapers are facing tough economic times.

  3. Louis Robinson Says:

    Most US states, and all the provinces here, have an Employment Standards Act, or something that passes for one. [Up here, there’s also a Federal act, but there aren’t really all that many people covered by it] In most cases, it’s a pretty low standard. However, it’s also enforced surprisingly often, although it helps to be a glutton for punishment if you’re going to complain.

    It’s surprising how often people think that salaried employees aren’t covered, and that’s the class you hear most of the horror stories from. The only ESAs I know in any detail are Ontario & Florida, and in both places that just ain’t so – there’s no distinction made between salaried and hourly employees for anything. There are some differences for different categories of employee or specific occupations, such as under-age or part-time staff, or farm workers. In Ontario, at least, the ESA sets the minimum that’s acceptable. You can’t waive the applicable provisions if you want to, so any contract or agreement with your employer can only improve on what’s set out. In practice, of course, if you’re happy and don’t complain, your employer will probably be OK, but they aren’t protected from prosecution by the fact that you aren’t objecting. Something that employers in particular tend to forget. Then something goes wrong and they can’t understand why they’re being nailed to the wall.

    As for what you get – like I said, it’s a pretty low bar: in Ontario, 10 working days vacation, 3 days sick leave and 12 statutory holidays a year.

  4. Sally Says:

    Or you can work less than full time, as I do. No benefits, no paid time off. Now, this is my choice, and I have the pleasure of 3 day weekends plus a half day for town errands. However, many people can only find part time jobs, sometimes several of them as they try to cobble together a living. Anything less than 30 hours a week has no legal coverage except for minimum wage (assuming you aren’t considered a ‘contractor’–a popular employer dodge–and aren’t working off the books).

    • Louis Robinson Says:

      again, this is a matter of local standards, but part-timers do get paid time off a lot of places – that’s what the 4% ‘vacation pay’ entry on your pay stub is all about: cash in lieu. and if they’re working a statutory holiday, they get the time and a half or double time for that, too [I remember when working Sunday was automatic time & 1/2, too, but i think that fell by the wayside decades ago]

  5. janelindskold Says:

    Thanks for all the different perspectives — including the Canadian one. I love the diversity of thought.

  6. Alan Robson Says:

    Very thoughtful responses — thank you. It seems a shame to me that so many of you get so little time off work. Apart from any other considerations, I think it’s a bit of a physical as well as a psychological necessity. The month and a half that I took off over Christmas has really “recharged my batteries” so to speak.

    Many organisations here in New Zealand completely shut up shop over the summer period — we closed our doors on 21st December and didn’t re-open them until 14th January. All I did was add a little bit extra to that.

    It’s impossible to do business here for most of December and January. Phones aren’t answered, nobody replies to emails, letters are ignored. It’s our summer, of course, and most of the country just goes outside to play. We used to have a Prime Minister who spent her Christmas holidays climbing mountains. I have no idea how the diplomatic protection squad coped with that!


  7. janelindskold Says:


    Sally’s comment made me think of another question…

    How is vacation time handled for those people who — like Sally — voluntarily choose to work less than full-time? Are they given a percentage of paid holidays?

    Actually, how are people like me who don’t have an employer (other than myself) handled? Would I be required to give myself time off? How would that be proven or enforced?

    Just wondering…

    • Alan Robson Says:

      As it happens, I’m in Sally’s position myself so I know exactly how it works. I only work for half the year (26 weeks) so I get half the holiday allowance. Consequently I really only have to work 24 weeks because I get a 2 week holiday entitlement and 24 + 2 = 26. However since I get 26 weeks off anyway, I tend not to bother about the 2 weeks vacation. And so it accumulates, year after year. I haven’t taken my paid annual leave for many years and so now I’m owed about 20 weeks of leave. Obviously my employers would get a bit upset if I took it all at once, but they couldn’t stop me if I insisted on it. And when I finally leave the job they will have to pay me for any of the leave I didn’t take — so if I left tomorrow they’d have to pay me 20 weeks salary to compensate me for the holiday I didn’t take.

      When you are self-employed, as you are Jane, a different set of rules kicks in. How you treat yourself is entirely up to you and nobody cares at all what you do about leave etc. The only person you hurt or hinder is yourself. So the authorities just leave you alone to get on with it as you see fit.

      However if you were to start employing staff, you would be required to treat those staff according to the law, just as I’ve outlined above.

      Does that answer your questions?


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