When you look for a new nursing job, you typically don’t just look at the salary. You look at all the benefits and perks the employer offers nurses, including retirement plans, healthcare benefits, and—of course—vacation time.
One of the biggest perks of being a nurse is the time off you can get. Most healthcare facilities have strong vacation and paid time off (PTO) policies, with nurses getting seventeen paid vacation days on average after their first year and up to twenty-six on average after twenty years. And that’s before PTO.
But what happens when your employer denies your vacation or PTO requests? And what about when this denial happens repeatedly?
Why Denied Vacation Time Is an Issue for Nurses & CNAs
If you’re reading this as a working nurse, you’ve very likely either heard of someone repeatedly being shot down for time-off requests or experienced this rejection yourself.
This denial has become exceptionally common given the current nursing shortage happening all over the country. While staffing shortages for nurses have happened on and off since the early 1900s, the current nursing shortage started in 2012 and has only escalated since the COVID-19 pandemic. Many nurses left the profession; some retired early when the pandemic hit, and others decided it was time for a career change. Those still working are tired and increasingly burnt out, both because many patients are becoming more difficult and because the staff shortages have left everyone scrambling to pick up the extra pieces.
Time off became particularly challenging when highly contagious strains of COVID-19 swept through the hospital. Some nurses have reported that their employers wanted them to show up if they were asymptomatic, even if they tested positive.
As a result of the pandemic and the nursing shortage, more nurses are seeing PTO and vacation time requests being denied by employers, even when the requests were made months in advance and during non-holiday periods.
Can Hospitals Deny Time Off Requests?
Nurses and CNAs are justifiably getting frustrated when their hard-earned and well-deserved time off is thwarted by a denied request from their employer—especially when they’re not presented with an alternative.
So can hospitals deny time off requests? The simple answer, unfortunately, is that yes, they can. There aren’t any federal laws that require employers to approve vacation or PTO requests. Rejecting vacation and PTO is particularly common when facilities have policies in place around who can take vacation time and when. Some hospitals, for example, may only allow one nurse from each team to be on vacation at once. Others may only allow nurses to take one or two holidays off per year to keep things fair amongst the staff.
While employers can deny vacation time or PTO requests within reason, they cannot deny family medical leave act (FMLA) requests or California Family Rights Act (CFRA) requests. The FMLA allows employees to be out of work for up to twelve weeks of unpaid time off to take care of their health or family matters. The CFRA only applies to California employers with a minimum of fifty employees. It requires allowing employees to be out of work for up to twelve weeks of unpaid time off.
What to Do If Your Employer Denies Your Time Off Requests
You may excitedly plan a vacation, submit the time off, and see that it’s been denied. So what do you do if this happens to you? Let’s go over your different options.
Talk to Your Supervisor Directly
If your time off has been denied, it’s always crucial to go straight to the source to find out why.
Make an appointment to speak with your supervisor privately to ask why the request wasn’t approved. They very likely have a good reason. There may be mandatory, company-wide training that week, or two nurses on your team may already be out, and the team can’t afford to have another member away on vacation.
You can ask if there’s any way that you can make your existing request work. If you have a few team members willing to each take one of your shifts, for example, that might allow for time-off being back on the table.
Appealing to your supervisor that you’re burnt out, haven’t had enough time to see family, need time to complete a home project, or help a pet recover from surgery can go a long way. They may be willing or able to shuffle some things around if they understand the need behind the request.
Find Out When You Can Take Time Off
If you’re already short-staffed and the hospital policy says no more than one nurse per team can be out at a time, you’re out of luck if someone else’s PTO requests have been approved for the same week you wanted to take off. By talking to your supervisor, however, you may be able to quickly identify other days or weeks that are currently fair game so that you can put in an immediate request.
This rescheduling doesn’t always work if you have plans that you can’t move, but if your time off requests are flexible, rescheduling can be an easy solution.
Consider Going to HR
Have your time off requests been shut down over and over just because your team is short-staffed and there’s no end in sight?
Don’t be afraid to go to HR. You can ask for clarification about your employer’s vacation and PTO policies and get direct answers about when you can expect to redeem your vacation time. If they stress that vacation time isn’t guaranteed or assure you that “don’t worry, it’s all accruing, and you can use it later,” it may be time to consider other options.
Submit an FMLA Time Off Notice If Applicable
Taking FMLA leave instead of vacation time or PTO isn’t ideal, primarily because you’re not getting paid during that time off—you get twelve weeks, but it’s all unpaid time. That said, if you absolutely need the time off, consider FMLA. It’s guaranteed by law, and your employer must hold your job until you return.
You can use FMLA to take time off if you are having health issues or are going through treatment (including for mental health conditions). You can also use it if a family member is experiencing illness. Some even use it to recover and care for an infant after giving birth if extended maternity leave isn’t available. FMLA won’t fly for “I want to go on a cruise,” but if you need it for any of the above categories, it’s got you covered.
Consider Other Employers
Is your healthcare facility consistently shutting down time off requests left and right, with no end in sight?
As drastic as it sounds, it may be time to consider other employment options. If your employer has an ongoing issue with approving time off, look for another employer that is willing and able to approve your requests. You can ask about it in the initial interviews.
Some nurses have switched from full-time work to part-time work in order to increase their time off on a weekly basis. This reduction in workload helps with burnout, and they may pick up high-paying PRN shifts as desired to make up differences in pay.
While time off may be a bit harder to come by during periods of elevated patient counts or staff shortages, it’s still important for all nurses to have access to vacation time throughout the year.
Working as a nurse is no joke, and everyone deserves to have a healthy work-life balance. That work-life balance includes taking PTO and vacation time, especially when it’s dolled out as part of the company’s offered benefits.
And remember that even if you’re a loyal employee, your mental health and work-life balance are crucial, too. Find an employer worth being loyal to if your current facility isn’t.
Looking for nursing work that revolves around your life instead of the other way around? Learn more about how Nursa can get you started with PRN work here.