Understaffed Employers Struggle with Vacation Demands

Allen Smith, J.D. By Allen Smith, J.D. August 17, 2021
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a family at the beach

​Understaffed employers are finding it difficult to meet business demands and keep morale up by granting summer vacation requests. Saying no to appeals for time off could lead to angry workers who will seek employment elsewhere.

Coordinating delayed vacation requests has been difficult for most employers because they have been short-staffed, noted Jim Paul, an attorney with Ogletree Deakins in St. Louis.

Mark Codd, Ph.D., SHRM-SCP, director of the labor relations group for Publix Super Markets in Lakeland, Fla., said, "Limiting vacation duration or the number of employees vacationing simultaneously, as well as maintaining contact with vacationing employees, are some of the options employers are faced with today in order to maintain the operation of the business." 

The past year and a half during the coronavirus pandemic has been extremely stressful. Many workers have had to cancel their vacations, especially if they had planned international travel, noted Robin Shea, an attorney with Constangy, Brooks, Smith & Prophete in Winston-Salem, N.C. Employees with cabin fever are anxious to get out again, but often there aren't enough workers available to cover vacationing employees' workplace responsibilities, she noted.

"Does an employer who can't find workers want to do something that is going to upset the few workers it has, possibly prompting them to quit?" Shea asked. "Employers have to do what they can do to stay afloat. But in doing so, they should try to avoid alienating their employees, especially in a tight labor market."

She recommended that employers:

  • Be as conservative as they can be with mandating vacation deferrals or denying vacation requests.
  • Make selections as fairly and objectively as possible if they can allow some but not all employees to take vacation. For example, an employer might rely on seniority, grant vacations to those in the least short-handed units or use a lottery if it can't allow all employees to take vacations.
  • Consider extra compensation for employees who have to sacrifice their vacation plans in 2021. This could include a one-time bonus or some extra paid time off to be taken in 2022.
  • Comply with any applicable collective bargaining agreement.

Benefits to Vacations

Despite the difficulties employers are facing with this summer's vacation requests, "COVID-related burnout is real," said Cindy-Ann Thomas, an attorney with Littler in Charlotte, N.C., and Columbus, Ohio. "If you're vaccinated and feel you can safely get away from your house—and for some employees home also represents their workplace—I think it's important for employers to be supportive of employees to take true vacations where they can fully disconnect from work."

Thomas noted that for employees, taking time away from work has many benefits, including:

  • Recharging.
  • Re-engaging and increasing job satisfaction.
  • Decreasing health-related crises—such as heart disease, depression and anxiety—and medical costs (to all parties) that are directly attributable to stress.

She added that employers reap many benefits from employees' taking time off as well, including:

  • Higher retention rates.
  • Increased productivity.
  • Higher morale.
  • Greater customer and client satisfaction.
  • Lower rates of stress-related industrial accidents.

"Employers should strive to create a culture where their employees understand and embrace the value of time away from work," said Debbie Connelly, senior vice president and chief people officer for Hyland Software in Rocky River, Ohio.

But for some employers, it's impossible to maintain business as usual. "Reduced operating hours, delayed business expansions and reduced services seem to be an increasing solution nationwide for employers now caught in this staffing bind," Publix's Codd said. "What once would have been an HR issue has now become an operational business priority."

Nonetheless, he observed, "those employers that ignore the vacationing needs of today's workforce may find themselves struggling to operate given the employment options available."

Saying No to Vacation Requests

If the employer really must deny vacation requests, it should clearly communicate with employees the reasons for the denials and when the situation is expected to improve, Shea said.

An employer might say no to taking a vacation in 2021 but pay employees for their accrued vacation time at the end of the year. In many states, the payout would satisfy legal requirements prohibiting the forfeiture of accrued unused vacation and allow the employer to keep everyone at work, she said.

Another option would be to make a one-time exception to an employer's no-carryover rule based on unusual business conditions. "That way, the employees could keep their accrued 2021 vacation time and hopefully have some very nice vacations in 2022," Shea said.

Denying vacation requests can be extremely detrimental to employee morale, noted Joyce Chastain, a regulatory compliance consultant with The Krizner Group in Tallahassee, Fla. Employees often make vacation plans with family and friends prior to requesting time off. Once plans are made, they can be difficult to reschedule.

"We recommend a vacation calendar that allows a predetermined number of employees off on the same dates," she said. "The vacation calendar can be circulated in order of employee tenure within each department to ensure adequate coverage."

Other Ways to Accommodate Vacationers

Revise paid-time-off policies, recommended Allison Kahn, an attorney with Carlton Fields in West Palm Beach, Fla. Prioritize vacations for employees who have not been on performance improvement plans over the last six months.

Offer perks to employees who voluntarily use alternative vacation dates, Kahn recommended. Offer a floating holiday, overtime opportunities or the first choice on their next vacation date.

"For nonexempt employees, some perks have to be computed into the regular rate for overtime purposes—for example, nondiscretionary bonus payments," she said. "Employees who receive a consolation prize will be less resentful and less likely to spread negative office morale," Kahn said.

[Want to learn more? Join us at the SHRM Annual Conference & Expo 2021, taking place Sept. 9-12 in Las Vegas and virtually.]

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