Taking a vacation

What are my rights?

Who gets to decide when a worker can take a vacation?
  • worker
  • employer

You’re sitting at work, staring out the window and thinking, I need a vacation. But practical concerns send you crashing back to earth. Do I even get one? Can I afford to take the time off? Learn your legal rights around taking a vacation.

What you should know

Your rights to a vacation depend on three factors

Three factors affect your rights to take a vacation: 

  • whether you’re covered by the main law protecting workers in BC, the Employment Standards Act

  • your employment contract

  • your employer’s needs

Let’s take each in turn. 

Employment standards law

First, BC’s Employment Standards Act sets out minimum standards for working conditions. It includes rules around vacations (we explain these rules shortly). Most workers in BC are covered by this law. But not everyone is. For example, independent contractors aren’t covered. Nor are people working for an employer regulated by the federal government, or working in certain licensed professions. To learn if this law applies to you, see our information on who’s covered by BC’s employment standards law.

Your employment contract

Second, your employment contract will typically set out how much vacation time you’re owed. Every worker has an employment contract. The terms of your contract may be in a written agreement. Or they may be expressed in other ways, such as in: 

  • letters or emails you received from your employer before you started working

  • anything you’re asked to sign before or after you started working

  • an office policy manual or staff handbook

  • a collective agreement (if you’re a member of a union)

You can't contract yourself out of your legal entitlements

If you’re covered by the Employment Standards Act, your employment contract can’t provide for less than what’s required under the Act. Whatever your contract says about vacation, it can't be any less than the minimum vacation entitlements under the law (explained below). 

Your employer’s needs

Third, your employer’s needs impact your rights to a vacation. Generally, your employer has the right to schedule your vacation time according to their business needs. That’s as long as you’re able to take your vacation days within 12 months of earning them. We explain this more fully below.

How much vacation you can take

Workers covered by the Employment Standards Act are entitled to a minimum amount of vacation each year, once they’ve worked in a job for 12 months. 

Under the Act, the amount of annual vacation time you’re entitled to is:

  • at least two weeks, after 12 consecutive months of employment

  • at least three weeks, after five consecutive years of employment

These are the legal minimum. If your employment contract says you get more vacation time than these legal minimums, you’re entitled to that higher amount.

(To learn if employment standards law applies to you, see our information on who’s covered.)

The Employment Standards Branch can help

The Employment Standards Branch is the government office that enforces BC’s employment laws. If your employer refuses to grant you the vacation time you’re entitled to at law or under your contract, contact the branch.

When you can take a vacation

“After I’d been in my job for six months, my wife and I were feeling we needed some time off together. I approached my employer and asked about scheduling a vacation. They agreed to let me take five vacation days in advance. My wife and I went to Cuba for a week. (It was fabulous.) When I reached a year in the job, I was able to take the remaining five days of my two week vacation entitlement.”

– Marcus, Vancouver

Generally, employers have the right to schedule their workers’ vacation time according to the employer’s business needs. But most employers will do their best to pick a time that works well for everyone. 

During your first year in a job, you earn vacation time to be taken in your second year of employment. That means once you start your second year of work, you can take the vacation time earned in the year before. 

You can request vacation time in advance

Under the Employment Standards Act (if you’re covered by the Act), you’re allowed to make a written request for vacation time before becoming entitled to it. If your employer agrees, the time you take in advance reduces the amount you get when you become entitled to it. 

You must take your vacation within 12 months of earning it

Under the Act, your employer must ensure you take your annual vacation within 12 months of earning it. 

Your employer must allow you to take the vacation time in blocks of one or more weeks, unless you agree in writing to take it in smaller increments. 

Give your employer notice in advance

Most employers expect workers to request vacation time well in advance. Try to give your employer as much notice as possible when you’re planning your vacation.

Your entitlement to vacation pay

Workers covered by the Employment Standards Act are entitled to vacation pay. This is an amount that approximates a worker’s usual pay for the time they're away on vacation. 

How much vacation pay you’re owed 

Under the Act (if you’re covered), an employer must pay you a minimum amount in vacation pay. If you’ve been in a job less than five years, your vacation pay must be at least 4% of your total wages during the year entitling you to vacation time off.

After five consecutive years of employment, you’re entitled to vacation pay of at least 6% of your total wages during the year entitling you to vacation.

If your employment contract says you get more vacation pay than the law requires, you’re entitled to that higher amount. 

When vacation pay is paid

You must receive your vacation pay at least seven days before you begin your vacation or on your scheduled paydays (if you agree in writing or a collective agreement applies). If the vacation pay is paid on your scheduled paydays, you get a portion of your vacation pay on each pay cheque. 

Either approach ensures that during your vacation you have access to the money you’ve earned. 

For example, let’s say Karen just finished her first year in a job. She earned wages of $40,000 through the year. At Karen’s request, her employer has scheduled her for two weeks of vacation time. Karen’s vacation pay is calculated as 4% of her total wages earned during her first year in the job, or $1,600 (4% of $40,000). Her employer pays Karen that amount a week before her vacation. Karen doesn’t receive wages during her vacation. The $1,600 of vacation pay will be included in Karen’s total wages for her second year of work.

If you continue to be paid a salary while on vacation

If you’re paid on a salary basis and your employer continues to pay your salary while you’re on vacation, it’s considered vacation pay. The salary you receive while on vacation must meet the minimum standards described above.

If you leave your job

When your employment ends, you’re entitled to all the vacation pay you’re owed. It must be added to your last pay cheque. (If you were in a job for five or fewer days, you’re not entitled to vacation pay.) 

Vacation pay is part of your annual wages

Vacation pay is based on a percentage of the “total wages” in the previous year. Any vacation pay you receive becomes part of your total wages for the year it is paid. This affects your vacation pay for the following year. (“Total wages” also includes overtime, statutory holiday pay, and bonuses which meet the definition of “wages” in the Employment Standards Act.)

Work out problems

Step 1. Speak to your employer

If you have a problem getting time off or with vacation pay, try raising the issue directly with your employer. Explain your perspective. Do your best to reach an agreement that works for you and your employer. Ultimately, it’s up to your employer when you take your annual vacation (as long as you’re able to take your vacation days within 12 months of earning them). Try to be flexible, and understand you may not get the exact dates you’d prefer.

Tips for having a conversation with your employer

Approaching your boss can be stressful. We offer tips to help you talk with your employer

Step 2. Write to your employer

If discussing the issue with your employer doesn’t work, consider putting your request in writing. Explain your concerns and your interest in working together to find a solution. You could say something like:

“Under the BC Employment Standards Act, I’m entitled to two weeks of annual vacation. [Modify to fit your situation.] When I asked to schedule my vacation this year, you denied my request. [Offer a suggested solution, such as — I propose these alternate dates to take my vacation.] I’d like to meet to explore solutions that will work for both of us.”

We provide tips for writing a letter to your employer

Keep a copy of the letter. Having a written record will be useful if you need to take additional steps.

Step 3. Make an employment standards complaint

If you aren’t able to resolve things directly with your employer, you can make a formal complaint. Workers covered by the Employment Standards Act (see who’s covered) can make a complaint to the Employment Standards Branch. This government office administers the Act and helps workers and employers resolve problems. For what’s involved, see our guidance on making an employment standards complaint.

Common questions

What if a statutory holiday falls during my vacation?

If you’re covered by the Employment Standards Act, the Act says your annual vacation is separate from any statutory holidays you’re entitled to. If a stat holiday falls during your annual vacation, you’re entitled to be treated the same way for your statutory holiday entitlement as you would be if you weren’t on vacation. See our information on working and statutory holidays

Can my employer cut my vacation if I took time off as sick leave?

No. Your employer can’t reduce your vacation time or vacation pay because you’ve been given sick pay during the year. Nor can money or time be deducted because you were paid a bonus or were given a vacation longer than the legal minimum. 

If I don’t want to take the annual vacation I’m entitled to, can I ask to be paid instead?

No. The Employment Standards Act says that time off for vacation must be taken. If you’re covered by the Act (see who’s covered), neither you nor your employer can waive your rights under it. If your employer doesn’t ensure you take the annual vacation you’re entitled to, it’s a violation of the law. Even if they pay you out instead.

Am I obligated to respond to work emails while on vacation?

There’s no law in BC giving you a legal right to ignore work emails outside of regular working hours. However, the Employment Standards Act has other rules that put limits on how much an employer can ask a worker to work. 

For example, if you’re covered by the Act, you’re entitled to be paid at overtime rates if you work more than a certain number of hours in a day or week. Your employer must also ensure you aren’t working so many hours that it’s negatively affecting your health. Further, you’re entitled to a minimum number of hours free from work each week. See our guidance on hours of work and working overtime for more on these rules.

Before you leave on vacation, make sure you’re clear on what your employer’s expectations are. 

Can I earn commission payments while on vacation?

Yes. If you’re paid entirely or in part by commission, you may earn commission payments while on vacation. Under the law, these payments are considered wages for work previously performed. Commission payments aren’t treated as vacation pay just because they’re paid while you are on vacation.

For example, Daniel is a used car salesman who is paid partly by commission. Two days before he leaves on vacation, he sells a car. Under the contract of sale, the buyer agrees to take delivery of the car, and pay for it, the following week. When she comes in the following week to settle up, Daniel is on vacation. The commission Daniel earns on the sale is not considered vacation pay, even though he’s on vacation when it becomes payable. 

All commission payments are included in your total wages when calculating vacation pay (see the “What you should know” section above).

Who can help

Helpful agencies

Employment Standards Branch
The BC government office that deals with complaints against employers.

  • Reviewed in March 2020
  • This information applies to British Columbia, Canada
  • Time to read: 10 minutes

Reviewed for legal accuracy by

Trevor Thomas, Ascent Employment Law

Trevor Thomas

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