I can take vacation, but only when my work is done

(MoneyWatch) Dear Evil HR Lady,

I am a salaried employee that works in monthly cycles. I have a set amount of work that must get done in 1 month time frames. My company is telling our department that in order to take time off, we need to get the work done on our own time. I am a healthcare professional so getting the work done in half the time is not a safe option for patients. If I take 1 week off, I have to squeeze those days into my weekends and evenings.

How can they claim to be giving me paid time off when I must work weekends/evenings to get the work done? I still put in the same amount of time just on different days. Obviously this is unsafe for our patients, but do we have any legal standing to ask for coverage?

The first question is, are you salaried exempt, or simply salaried? The former means you are not eligible for overtime, no matter how many hours you work. The second means that if you work 40 hours or less you get the same paycheck, but if you work more you are owed overtime pay. You may be classified incorrectly. But, let's assume that you are legally exempt from overtime pay.

First of all, there is no federal law requiring vacation. Employers can set whatever restrictions they want around vacation pay--how much to grant, who gets priority, how many days you can take off together, what time of the year you can take it, etc. All of these things are entirely up to the employer. (FDIC insured institutions may be an exception, as the FDIC recommends consecutive days off, but that doesn't apply to you.)

So, saying, "You can only take a day off if you've done all your work," is perfectly legal. Because as an exempt employee you are not paid by the hour and companies can restrict vacation. (What they cannot do is go against their own employee handbooks. They can, however, change their employee handbooks, but not retroactively.)

But is this a good idea? Of course not. When we accept jobs, vacation is included right next to the salary in the offer letter. They do this because companies know that people value vacation. Companies want the best people to work for them, and therefore they have to be competitive on both salary and benefits. Additionally, people who get some time off perform better. Downtime is actually good for people. Brains need a bit of a break from time to time.

What can you do about it? Well, first of all, I would find out if the people who made the policy have any clue what you actually do and how it affects patient care. You would think this would be the case, but often times policies are made by people who don't have a clue about the amount of work it takes to get things done. They are simply looking at the bottom line and saying, "Why are we hiring temps/paying overtime/having decreased productivity when people are on vacation? This is too expensive! Stop it!"

Second, since money is doing the talking here (they certainly didn't make the policy in interest of boosting employee morale or increasing patient safety) you can approach this from a financial standpoint. How much money do they stand to lose if patient care is compromised? How about the potential of a malpractice lawsuit?

Third, you need to talk about employee morale. They probably think it's not an issue because the economy is bad and it's not easy to find another job. Except that a bad economy doesn't mean that people don't get sick, so this means that if you leave they will just have to replace you. Recruiting costs are actually pretty high. Additionally, happy workers are better workers. 

The person who needs to be your advocate is your direct boss. She needs to be the one making the case to her boss as to why this is a ridiculous rule. But, in order to get her to agree to do this, you may have to be the one who comes up with a workable solution. Because, after all, if you're not doing the work, who is? Presumably, it has to get done.

If your leaders continues to enforce this rule, then you'll have to ask yourself if this a deal breaker for you. If it's not, then you just have to find a way to handle it. If it is, then start looking for a new job. Unfortunately, sometimes that is the only way to get senior management to listen.

Have a workplace dilemma? Send your question to EvilHRLady@gmail.com.