Does my employer owe me vacation time?

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Q:  I just resigned from my employer.  In my original offer letter, I was given four weeks of vacation.  Since my last day of work was July 12, my understanding was that I would leave with money in my pocket.  I took three weeks of vacation in early 2019.  Now, my employer is telling me that I need to have some money deducted from my final pay because I did not earn that time.  Is this legitimate?

A:  In most states, Massachusetts included, vacation time is discretionary.  This means that employers are not required to offer paid or unpaid vacation time to employees.  Most employers offer vacation time for several reasons.  First, employers recognize that employees need to re-charge their batteries and enjoy some time away from work.  Second, it is a competitive issue; most employers offer paid vacation time to full-time employees.  Some employers even offer paid vacation time to part-time employees.

Most employers have a system where vacation time is earned (or accrued) throughout the year.  In your situation, my guess is that you were offered four weeks of vacation per year and you would earn that through the year.  Another way to look at it is that you would earn 1.67 vacation days per month of service.  When we write vacation policies for our clients, we sometimes will even specify that the employee must be employed for the entire month.  Using you as an example, you would have earned 10.02 days since you completed six months of service in 2019. A quick calculation would tell me that you probably owe your employer about 10 days of time.  If you had not taken any vacation time in 2019, your employer would be required to pay you for that unused but accrued time.

It is not unusual for an employer to try to re-coup that time since it was already given to you, because you had not earned it.  If you had remained employed for the entire year, you would have earned the full four weeks.

Pattie Hunt Sinacole is a human resources expert and works for First Beacon Group in Hopkinton, an HR consulting firm. She contributes weekly to Boston.com Jobs and the Boston Sunday Globe Money & Careers section.

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