I received the following email from a reader:
All of our employees (exempt & non-exempt) receive vacation time. We have an issue with how some of our exempt employees report their vacation hours. If they answer (literally) an email or a phone call while on vacation, they consider that day a "working day" and do not use their vacation time.
I can find a lot of information regarding deducting pay from an exempt employee, but not regarding deducting vacation time.
Your employees are acting like they've found the brilliant loophole of vacation time. Spend 3 minutes every day reading an email and they never have to come into work again. Brilliant! Except, that's not how this works.
There is a "touch the wall" rule for exempt employees. This means that if an employee does any work on any day they must receive their full pay. You can't dock someone's pay if they only work for 15 minutes on Tuesday. However, what it doesn't mean is that this 15 minutes of work means they have to be treated like they were in the office the whole day.
The law is that you can't deduct pay not that you can't deduct vacation time. Federal law doesn't require you to give vacation time at all, so you're pretty much free to treat vacation time like you want to. You are bound by your handbook, so make sure your handbook is up to date. If an exempt employee checks her email on vacation, you don't have to consider the whole day a working day. You don't even have to add back to her vacation.
You do need to set expectations, though. What is reasonable depends on your industry and culture. If your industry expects people to check in every day, let employees know that as an exempt employee, they are expected to check email once a day while on vacation, or they are expected to take a phone call now and then. You can have a policy that if they work two or more hours on any given day, they get that time added back to their PTO. It's not legally necessary, but it is nice.
What I prefer, though, is a policy that you are not expected to work while on vacation and if you check your email, voicemail, or call into a meeting, that will be considered voluntary. An exempt employee that is receiving full salary can voluntarily work--regardless of whether the person is on vacation or not. I would make it clear that it's perfectly acceptable to leave your laptop at home.
People need vacations. They need real vacations where they aren't required to work through it. This doing work while on vacation may be a result of your employees trying to game the system, and it may be because your managers are expecting work while on vacation. Either problem needs to be stopped.
Incidentally, I'm on vacation now, but I wrote this before I left. And my laptop? It's at home, where it should be when one is on vacation.