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On the Spot: When a boss approves vacation time, then rescinds

An employee may have little recourse, but employers should think twice before denying time off.

May 26, 2013|By Catharine Hamm, Los Angeles Times
(Reuben Munoz / Los Angeles…)

Question: Can an employer cancel an employee's time off? In February, a friend of mine told his boss he was going to take off March 24-29. His boss said it was OK. The company does not provide paid vacation time, by the way. My friend bought a round-trip ticket. But two weeks before the trip, his boss told him he could not go and that if he did, he would be fired. Should my friend sue?

Sam Schwiner

San Francisco

Answer: Your friend should not sue if he wants to keep his job, although he might want to evaluate whether he wants to work for someone who doesn't keep his word. Where I come from, we generally call these people liars, although not to their faces if we need the job.

But I started wondering about this no-paid-vacation thing. Don't employers have to give paid time off?

Maybe in Europe, but in the U.S., the short answer is no, according to Bryance Metheny, a partner in the Birmingham, Ala., office of Burr & Forman.

"Employers are not required to provide vacation to employees under federal law or almost any state law, including California," Metheny said in an email. "However, in most states, if an employer promises vacation through the [employee] handbook or as a matter of practice and procedure, the employer is obligated to honor its commitment."

But, he added, "if the employee was not clear about the dates to the boss when he or she requested vacation, the employee really has no options.... It is completely within the employer's discretion whether to grant the requested leave. Even if the boss had originally authorized the leave, it is likely that the employer's vacation policy is drafted broadly enough to permit the employer to change its mind due to changed business circumstances or labor needs."

The employer who doesn't provide paid vacation is penny-wise and pound foolish. That's the view of Joe Robinson, a corporate trainer specializing in stress management and work-life balance and the author of "Don't Miss Your Life: Find More Joy and Fulfillment Now" and "Work to Live."

If you're refreshed, you're engaged — and engaged employees are 28% more effective, Robinson said studies have shown. Companies "want people who are committed, who put in the extra effort. Nobody can do that when they are stressed out and burned out."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has done a cost-benefit analysis that shows that vacations, in the end, are more cost-effective. In its example, it compares a one-week cruise with a regular week spent at work. Despite the cost of the ship trip, the benefit, including the anticipation, offsets the cost of the fare.

A vacation allows the body time to repair the physical, mental and emotional damage inflicted by stress, which, Robinson says, is a trillion-dollar health crisis. The U.S., he believes, is "on the verge of a national nervous breakdown," and he has started a campaign called Smash Stress. (More info at

Vacation isn't the only answer to stress, of course. But it can go a long way in helping you get ready for the next battles.

The employer who cancels a vacation that's been promised will be a big loser, which is also what we call somebody who goes back on his word. Just not to his face if we need the job.

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