The Basics of US Employment Law Part III: Vacation Time

This blog in the US Employment Law series focuses on vacation time.

One of the key differences between United States employees and employees in most of Europe is the amount of vacation time employees have come to expect. American employees think that four weeks vacation is extremely generous. Europeans, on the other hand, commonly enjoy four or more weeks of vacation even at entry-level jobs, and many European countries mandate a minimum amount of vacation time.

In the US, there are no federal laws mandating how much paid time off an employee must receive. Absent a collective bargaining agreement or other employment contract, most US employers do not have to offer any paid time off to their employees. However, some local laws mandate a certain amount of paid time off, including my home city of Philadelphia, which requires employers with a minimum number of employees to offer a certain amount of paid sick leave. There are also laws governing unpaid time off, such as the federal Family and Medical Leave Act. So employers should be sure to check with their legal counsel about their particular requirements.

It is also important for employers to understand that although they may not be legally required to offer any paid time off, a certain amount of paid time off has come to be expected in the US as a matter of practice. One might say that vacation time in the US is largely governed by custom. Most salaried (i.e. non-hourly) employees expect to receive one to two weeks of paid time off per year. This paid time off may be in the form of some combination of vacation time, sick days, and personal days. As employees advance in their careers, they expect to receive more vacation time. In general, it is customary for employees to receive between two and four weeks of vacation time per year, depending on their level of experience and years of service, with more senior executives enjoying more generous paid time off packages. Most entry-level jobs provide up to two weeks vacation. Six or more weeks of vacation time is generally reserved for the most senior executives – those who have worked hard, proven their loyalty, and are being rewarded towards the end of their career.

A common problem multi-national companies face is when they bring over an employee from Europe to work in the US office. The European employee often expects to continue to receive her four to six weeks of vacation. This, however, may not go over too well with her US colleagues working in the same office at the same level, but who are only getting two weeks of vacation. Employers need to be sensitive to this potential land mine.

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Erica Intzekostas