In a typical year, New York employees at magazine publisher Condé Nast must use up or lose their vacation days before the end of December – a common policy across all American businesses.
But earlier this month, the company emailed employees saying they could postpone up to five days of vacation next year, an apparent recognition that many of them have reduced their days. of leave amid the long hours and travel restrictions imposed by the pandemic. “The postponement will be automatic, and there is nothing more to do,” the email said.
Conde Nast was not the only one scrambling to make year-end arrangements for workers deprived of vacation. Some employers, however, have been less accommodating.
“This is a big problem that we are seeing now – competing requests for time off over the next two weeks,” said Allan S. Bloom, employment lawyer at Proskauer in New York. “Customers find it hard to understand it.”
Mr Bloom and other lawyers and human resources experts said there was no clear pattern in how employers were handling the challenge.
Many companies that already allow employees to defer their vacation days to next year – like Goldman Sachs (usually up to 10) and Spotify (usually up to 10) – have not felt the need to change their policies. .
The same goes for some companies that pay workers for their unused vacation days.
Neither General Motors nor Ford Motor, whose hourly workers can cash in unused vacation days at the end of the year, are making no changes this year.
But many workers may find themselves unable to take their postponed vacation: employees of both automakers typically lose unused vacation days at the end of the year without compensation.
Other companies have taken steps that could defuse a possible human resources headache and, they say, benefit their staff in difficult times.
Bank of America, which normally requires its U.S. employees to take all of their vacation before the end of the year, said in June it would allow them to spend up to five days in the first quarter of 2021.
Citigroup has generally allowed its U.S. employees to defer vacation days to the first quarter of next year, but in July it added an incentive: Employees get an extra vacation day next year if they use up all of their time. holiday period 2020 this year.
Small businesses have made similar changes.
Latshaw Drilling, an oil services company based in Tulsa, Oklahoma, typically allows office workers to spend up to three weeks vacation. In December, Latshaw told his office workers he would buy up to a week of unused time beyond that amount, which they would otherwise have wasted.
“Since this year was so crazy and people were afraid to travel, we made a one-off change,” said Trent Latshaw, founder and president of the company.
Several experts have said that a philosophical question arises about vacation benefits: do we need to ensure that workers take time off? Or are vacation days just an alternate form of compensation that workers can use as they please, whether it’s relaxing away from work, supplementing their income, or hanging out with them until the end of time? , as a monument to their productivity?
An employer’s policies may reflect their perspective on this issue: Despite all their drawbacks, use-or-loss rules can help ensure workers take time off, said Jackie Reinberg, who leads the practice of absence and invalidity of the consulting firm. Willis Towers Watson. In contrast, rollover and withdrawal options imply that vacation is an asset they have the right to control.
Yet for many workers, the problem during the pandemic is not so much unused vacation days as it is insufficient vacation days. Jonathan Williams, communications director of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 400, which represents grocery store workers in Mid-Atlantic States, said workers were sometimes forced to cut back their reserves of paid vacation if they were asked to quarantine a second time after possible exposure to the coronavirus. Only the first quarantine is usually covered by the employer, Williams said.
And some employees struggle to take advantage of the generous vacation policies offered by their company.
A spokeswoman for Target said the company had increased the number of vacation days that hourly and salaried workers could carry forward to the following year, depending on the employee’s role and seniority. But according to Adam Ryan, who works for Target in Christiansburg, Va., Many employees struggle to qualify for perks like vacation days.
Mr Ryan said in a text message that he had worked for the company for three years, but generally worked an average of less than 20 hours per week. “That way I don’t have vacation or paid sick leave, no real benefits of any kind,” he said.
The Target spokeswoman said employees could save more hours under its staffing deal for the vacation.
Several union officials, employers and human resources experts have said that financial considerations have driven many decisions about vacation policies during the pandemic. Toyota normally allows many employees by the hour and many employees in the United States to cash in up to two weeks of unused vacation time. This year, the company lowered the cap to one week, a change that a spokeswoman said was aimed at avoiding layoffs.
The considerations become even more complicated during the days that workers push into the years to come. According to Reinberg, allowing workers to defer several days can create a pile of debt owed to workers that many employers are loath to keep on their books.
A union official with the Reuters news organization said the company had raised accounting concerns by sticking to its use-or-loss policy this year. The union had pleaded for leniency, stressing that its contract allowed management to approve a postponement of vacation days in “exceptional circumstances”.
“If this year has not been exceptional, I don’t know what it has been,” said union official Dan Grebler, an editor who chairs the workers’ bargaining unit at Reuters. “The answer was, ‘No, we can’t do that. There would be complicated accounting. “
Mr Grebler said Reuters began urging workers to take days off this calendar year around the same time it pushed him back.
A spokesperson for Reuters said that “our policy towards American employees for the past few years has not allowed for the carry over of unused vacation days” and that “employees have been regularly called back since the first half of this year” .
Unionized New York Times employees, such as reporters, are encouraged to use vacation days in the year in which they accumulate the days, but can usually carry them over until March 1 of the year. next. The days they don’t use at this point are paid in cash. A spokesperson for the company said the policy had not changed this year.
By law and custom, many Americans have come to view vacation days more as compensation than a mandate to take time off.
In a survey by Willis Towers Watson in April, more than half of employers who made or planned to make changes to their vacation benefits said they were doing so because they didn’t expect them to. workers use all their days. About a third of the planned changes said the benefit had become too costly.
A few states, like California and Montana, essentially codify the view of vacation ownership rights by prohibiting use or loss policies. (Companies with strict use or loss or turnover policies should exempt workers in these states.)
Such laws prevent workers from effectively being deprived of hard-to-use vacation days during the year only to expire at the end of the year. But these laws can also subtly discourage vacations by making them easier to redeem for cash or postpone indefinitely.
“For me, as a lawyer, you should be able, by law, to keep unused vacation,” said Peter Romer-Friedman, employment lawyer at Gupta Wessler. “But I’m not sure that creates a good incentive.”
To that end, a number of companies, including many in the tech industry, have taken the pandemic as an opportunity to ensure their workers decompress.
In the spring, software company GitLab responded to a significant increase in the hours spent by its more than 1,000 employees with so-called friends and family days, during which the company closes to dissuade people from logging in. . Google, Slack, and software company Cloudera have launched similar policies – none of which count towards workers’ paid days off.
Automattic, the creator of the WordPress.com website builder, has gone one step further by encouraging employees who work together to coordinate their vacations in order to eliminate the friction that discourages breaks.
“We’ve been experimenting with entire teams taking time off simultaneously,” Lori McLeese, the company’s human resources manager, wrote in an email. “We hope this will reduce the make-up work that employees typically return to after taking vacations, making their return less stressful or overwhelming.”
Peter Eavis and Clifford Krauss contributed reporting.