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Moving Beyond the Crisis: Managing Employee Vacation Policies

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As employees start returning to work, employers have many questions. This includes questions about vacation policy. With summer arriving, employees may be wondering if they can still take annual trips to the cottage or planned time off.

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Navigating vacation policy will require some thought and care from employers and HR professionals, especially if they want to meet employee needs and expectations. This guide illuminates some of your options and will help you decide how best to move forward.


Have Employees Used Vacation Time?

Employers reconsidering vacation policy must examine what vacation time employees have accrued and whether they’ve been forced to use any.

Employees might have used vacation time to care for sick relatives or children. In other companies, fiscal years that ended in April may have forced employees to use up vacation time, only for vacation days to reset on May 1.

If your employees have been working from home throughout the crisis, they may not have used any vacation time. This is also true of frontline workers, who might have accrued more time off through lieu time instead of overtime pay.

If your employees have used up their vacation days, you may not need a revised vacation policy right now. If employees were laid off or not working for a while, they might be happy to forego vacation now to “make up” for lost time.


Setting an Updated Vacation Policy

For most employers, it’s unlikely that all employees will have used up their vacation time, and some could have more time accruing. Even if an employee was off work before, they may still want time off around a long weekend or to take a trip to the cottage.

Employers must carefully weigh their options. One choice is to create a “vacation blackout,” a block of time when employees will not be allowed to take vacation.

It should be noted that vacation blackouts, even when implemented with good reason, are not popular with employees. They do help employers ensure proper staffing, and they also ensure employees are treated fairly.

A policy like this can benefit employers who are finally reopening or find themselves overwhelmed by demand. An example could be a hospital creating a vacation blackout around a holiday weekend, as there are often more ER visits during this time.

If your business is seasonal, you might want to ask employees to postpone their vacation. Staggering vacations is also a possibility but can raise questions of fairness. Vacation time is often given on a first-come, first-serve basis. Popular vacation times are usually booked immediately, and some employees will not get their preferred vacation dates. This can lead to an increase in call-ins and short-staffing.

You could also choose to close the business for a week or two. Many business owners will be leery on this option, especially having just been through a shutdown and with concerns about a potential second wave on the horizon.


More Flexible Vacation Policies Could Be the Answer

One answer you might have missed is allowing for “unlimited” vacation. Contrary to popular belief, these policies do not encourage employees to just take time off “whenever” or never come to work. Employees often feel more motivated to make sure they’re being both productive and putting in enough time to counterbalance time they take off.

This could alleviate concerns employees have about having already used vacation time or not being allowed to take vacation. You might still need to implement stricter guidelines on when and how vacation is being taken or implement limited blackout dates, but a more flexible policy is likely to get greater buy-in from employees. In turn, they’ll be more willing to help you.

Your best bet is to discuss employee concerns and desires about vacation as you craft policy. Your team understands that this is uncharted territory. By consulting with them, you’ll be able to create a policy everyone will be able to get behind.


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Lisa Curic

Lisa Curic

Lisa brings almost 30 years of experience to her role as the executive vice president at GroupQuest Benefits Resources Inc. She has worked for several different insurance businesses and co-founded a group benefits MGA in 2006. Lisa’s dedication and hard work has played a significant role in growing GroupQuest from two to over 40 employees in less than 10 years, and in making it one of the largest group benefit MGAs in Canada. Outside of her busy work schedule, Lisa enjoys reading, travelling, working out, cooking, and spending time with her husband and two children.

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