California employment law requires special treatment of vacation pay. Although employers are not required to offer vacation pay at all, if they do, they must adhere to certain rules.
By operation of California Labor Code section 227.3, vacation pay is treated as part of an employee’s wages, which vests as it is earned. Because it vests, it can never be forfeited. Use it or lose it policies are prohibited.
Because these rules only apply to vacation pay, it is important to understand what that is. The California Labor Commissioner considers any leave time that is offered without condition. Personal time off and personal and floating holidays are examples of benefits that are considered to be vacation. Thus, an employer who provides 10 days of paid vacation plus a paid personal day has actually provided 11 days of what the Labor Commissioner considers vacation. The benefit accrues at a regular rate throughout the year.
Paid leave that is tied to an objective standard is not vacation. Holiday pay is not vacation, because it is tied to the occurrence of the holidays recognized by the employer. Bereavement leave is not vacation, because it is tied to the death of a family member. Sick leave is not vacation, because it is tied to the employee becoming ill. Note, however, that an employer that lumps sick leave and vacation together as paid time off must treat all that leave time as vacation.
Although an employer may not impose it a use it or lose it policy, it may impose accrual caps. An accrual cap is a limit on the amount of paid leave that an employee may accumulate. After the limit is reached, no further paid leave accrues until some is used. But, the employer must set the accrual cap high enough so that the employee has a realistic chance of taking the entire vacation and still continuing to accrue vacation. A cap of two times the annual allotment is considered fair. Thus, if the employer offers two weeks of vacation, it should set the accrual cap at four weeks.
Employers may also control when vacation starts to accrue and when it may first be used. Thus, it is permissible to require employees to work six months before they begin to earn vacation, or to prohibit the use of earned vacation within the first six months of employment. The employer may not accelerate accrual. For example, a policy that postponed the accrual of vacation for six months could not then vest each employee who passed the six month mark with a week of paid leave.
There are two limited exceptions to California’s vacation pay rules: