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Happy holidays? Your rights to time off at Christmas

Luke Whitmore - Law on the Web

  1. 24 November 2015
  2. Employment
  3. 0 comments
Woman working at Christmas

When most people imagine the ideal Christmas, it’s unlikely to involve serving customers, sitting in meetings or photocopying stacks of documents – but for those whose employers won’t let them take time off over the festive season, that’s exactly the fate they could be facing. But what does the law have to say about your right to take a Christmas holiday? And on the flipside, what if you would rather be working?

Taking time off over Christmas

It should go without saying that almost everyone wants time off for Christmas, which can make it very tough to get the festive holiday you’d like. It’s a particular problem if you work in retail, with the festive period being the busiest of the year – a time when shops need their employees more than ever, when most of them would rather be at home.

The law falls very much on the side of employers in this seasonal struggle. As some unfortunate shop workers know, even a bank holiday is no guarantee of a day off – your employer does not have to give you paid leave on these days, and could even make you work on Christmas Day for no extra pay.

While this Scrooge-like approach is uncommon, it’s not illegal unless it’s stated in your contract that you’ll get bank holidays off or that you’d get extra pay for working over Christmas. Those working for larger retailers are in luck, though – the Christmas Day Trading Act 2004 prohibits any shop larger than 280 square meters from opening on Christmas Day, with a few exceptions.

While this generally makes the outlook for a festive break sound quite gloomy, one rule that employers do have to follow is that of treating employees fairly when it comes to holiday requests. If they give some employees greater leeway than others when choosing their time off, and don’t have a good reason to do so, this could be a breach of employment law. This is particularly the case if their reasons for favouring certain employees amount to discrimination, or they are treating some types of worker worse than others (for example, treating agency workers worse than permanent employees). If the boss’s favourite gets their choice of Christmas leave approved year after year, leaving others to pick up the slack, it might be time to start asking why.

Working through Christmas

Though it’s a view that rarely gets much respect, for some of us, Christmas is little more than a distraction. If you choose not to celebrate the festive season, you might resent being forced to use up holiday time during what is for all intents and purposes a very dark and cold time of year.

Some workplaces even close down for longer than just the usual bank holidays – all well and good if you enjoy the time off, but those who aren’t interested might prefer to use up an extra week of leave in the summer instead.

Unfortunately, employers do pretty much have free rein when it comes to making employees take time off. If they mandate a shutdown over Christmas week, you can’t insist that you be allowed to come in as normal to an empty workplace.

There may be exceptions to this – for example, your employment contract might specify that you can only be told when to take a certain amount of your annual leave – but there is no specific legal right to take your leave when you wish to do so.

One restriction that does exist is that of notice periods. Your employer cannot simply tell you out of the blue that you’ll be taking a week off and it’s coming out of your annual leave – they are legally required to give a notice period at least twice as long as the time they want you to take off, unless otherwise specified in your employment contract. So, if they wanted you to take a week’s holiday, they would need to notify you of this at least two weeks in advance.

The right to annual leave

While you may not have the right to take holiday at any given time, all employees have a right to some amount of annual leave, and your employer has to respect this and treat you fairly when it comes to holidays. Take a look at our section on time off work for more information.

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