Employers in China are constantly getting sued over employee vacation days. The very short version of the general rule is that any employee who works continuously for one year is entitled to statutory annual paid leave (a/k/a paid vacation days). This is not news to China-based foreign employers as their parent companies all have vacation policies. However, what is not so well known is the legal requirement that they make arrangements for the employees to be able to enjoy their statutory vacation days. What this means is that employers in China must stay on top of how their employees take (or not take) their vacation days and, more importantly, they must pay their employees for unused vacation days, unless they can prove the relevant employee has voluntarily given up such vacation days. But the tricky part ain’t over.
Foreign employers in China far too often assume their employees cannot prevail on claims for payment for unused vacation days if they have waited too long. But this is only sort of correct. As with pretty much everything else involving China employment law, how the statute of limitations is calculated varies. Some courts treat compensation for unused vacation days as normal wages and apply the longer statute of limitations and give employees until one year after their employment is terminated to sue for all such compensation. Some courts treat it as a pure penalty payable by the employer and apply the shorter statute of limitations, which may bar a portion of the unused vacation pay the employee is claiming to get. Some courts completely ignore the issue of statute of limitations and this usually means an employer that cannot produce evidence to show its employee actually took the vacation days at issue will need to pay for any “unused” vacation days, no matter how long ago.
Our China employment lawyers advice our clients not to focus on how a particular Chinese court in a specific city will apply the statute of limitations on any given day, especially since courts in different districts in the same city have been known to use different standards. Rather, we tell them to focus on working to prevent the problem. From day one, your HR department should be keeping track of how each of your employees takes his or her vacation days. If there are lingering issues or claims, clean them up right away. Get your employees to execute an agreement (in Chinese!) making clear the employee acknowledges having been paid in full for any unused vacation days.
Though employees in China should plan their own vacation days and do have the freedom to give them up, it is not a good strategy for an employer to leave it to their employees to track and/or accumulate their vacation days without checking. When employees sue for vacation time years after that time was accrued, you want to have good evidence that no payment is owed.